Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Clearly Christmas

The Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. - John 1:14
Grace & Truth. These are the two elements that bring clarity to Christmas. Up until then it had been mostly truth. There were the Ten Commandments and we couldn't measure up. There was a command to have no other God other than the One True God and we made other gods, eventually insisting on a human King. Truth was we were messed up.

It's like getting a performance review and the only thing in it are the things you need to fix. Christmas changed all that. There's still truth. But now there's grace. Christmas clarity comes from both being married together in Jesus.

In practically every area of life we are judged by our performance. In school, at work, in sports. It's all about being first, being the best. There are no points for second place.Remember this photo finish in the pool at the Beijing Olympics?

One one hundredth of a second and Michael Phelps wins the 100 fly. Tough luck Milorad Cavic. Not fast enough. Not the best.

One gains worldwide notoriety. The other fades away into obscurity, unknown to most outside the world of swimming. One wins and while the other wins a silver it's just not gold. There's only one winner and he gets lavishly rewarded - completely deserved I believe. That's the way sports works. That's the way life works. Is that the way God works?

Rick Warren reminded me of this concept in his little book, The Purpose of Christmas.

The way we live is you get what you pay for – no such thing as a free lunch – if it's going to be then it's up to me – if you want something done right, do it yourself; and this one – God helps those who help themselves.

That's not in the Bible you know? It's a phrase from Ben Franklin's Poor Richard's Almanac. It's a phrase that goes with this performance notion.

And so we humans usually think that when it comes to spiritual matters, God must relate to us on the same performance basis. You must earn God's approval, live a life that deserves God's love and work your way to heaven by trying harder and trying to live a “good life.”

That's very consistent with our performance based thinking. Even coming to Church won't do it. Giving money won't do it. Being nice won't do it. But it seems so consistent with everything else in our world.

Christmas is God's performance review, Warren writes. “You've got it all wrong,” God says. “Definitely doing good things matters, but I love you because you are you not because of what you do.”

Our world is filled with people trying to find their way. Frustrated people who don't know what they're looking for. Nothing fills up the void. Nothing lasts – just wait until tomorrow morning around Noon when the newness has worn off. By evening or at least the day after tomorrow, some old things will begin to reappear.

The answer to our lives is not in a place, a program or a pill. The answer is a person and His name is Jesus. This is the good news of Christmas – “today in the City of David a Savior has been born, He is Christ the Lord.”

Clearly it's Christmas. I pray you see through the fog, through the mess, past the packages and tree and food and friends and family to an out of the way manger. You have to look for it. It's off the beaten path, in an out of the way place unknown to most. It's there that you find what you're looking for. Bend a knee today and know the life that is the light of all humanity.


Thursday, December 13, 2012

Dirty Jobs for Healthy Relationships

Relationships are the stuff of life. To live is to be in relationship, with yourself and hopefully with others. Relationships are the number one concern people bring to me - relationship with God, marriage, children, parents and friends.

Healthy relationships take hard work, deliberate action and usually some help from outside the relationship in the form of friends, reading and the Holy Spirit. I've been thinking about the best tools to offer people looking to grow healthier relationships.

When I was a swim coach, I learned quickly that if I was able to help athletes perfect a couple of things, their times would improve. I concentrated a lot on starts, turns and finishes. I found if they got those right, many other things took care of themselves. Completely ineffective stroke techniques certainly needed attention, but even a mediocre stroke with a strong start, turn and finish would improve a time.

What are those things for relationships? I've come up with 5 that I think I pretty important. No doubt, others could add some, come up with 7 and I might even be able to argue against one or more of mine. In my experience these 5 come up more often than others. Deal with these and relationships tend to get better.

1. Forgiveness. This is THE key to healthy relationships. Walking in forgiveness each day, in every step of a relationship, prevents us from carrying baggage around - baggage that strains our own back and prevents us from fully participating with another in this journey of life. I have a simply definition for what it means to forgive (I'm sure I borrowed it from someone at some point): "Giving up the right to hurt you for hurting me."

Forgiveness is a one-way street. It's not about deserving or earning it. Forgiveness is a choice we make to let go, give up the right to beat another up. It's not a feeling; it's not about forgetting. Forgiveness takes the sting out of the hurt because we refuse to nurse and rehearse it. Giving forgiveness starts with speaking the truth and ends at the cross of Jesus, the greatest image of forgiveness we know.

A seminary professor said forgiveness is God's 50/20 vision - from Genesis 50:20 and Joseph's amazing journey to be able to forgive because he saw with God's eyes:
"You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives."
2. Choices (also known as Priorities). Oftentimes my discussions come around the choices people make about the priority of a relationship. In marriage, for instance, each no longer belongs to him or herself. Each belongs to the other. That means for the mutual benefit of the relationship, and all the benefits that come with that relationship, each will be required to give up some wants and desires in exchange for having needs met - some of which are unknown. When we are in relationship with another, the choices we make must be understood in terms of how they affect the other. Often it's stupid choices that lead to trouble, like an affair. Sometimes it's our response to the things that happen to us - cancer for instance - and the choices we make in the face of unwanted circumstances. Helping people make wise choices solves a lot of heartache and misery.

3. Sex. Get sex wrong and relationships go wrong. It's not the most important thing but when not used in the right way it can damage a relationship. Sex before marriage complicates the necessary growth in the relationship that leads to a strong marriage. Emotion takes over and sex becomes the default action rather than dealing with difficulties. Sex outside of marriage is just downright stupid. It destroys a unique bond intended to be between one man and one woman. An affair doesn't have to lead to divorce - refer to my first point.

Marriage without sex leads to distance that harms the power of intimacy. (No, sex isn't always intimate and intimacy doesn't have to lead to sex.) There are most definitely physical circumstances that can lead to a no sex marriage but what I'm referring to are the sexless marriages because of the lack of intimacy in the relationship.

Sex is usually a symptom not a cause; it's the barometer not the thermostat of a relationship. Keep the fire in the fireplace. Get this right and the relationship will really sizzle, whether it be before marriage or in marriage.

4. Money and Debt. This is the number one conflict issue in a marriage but whether single or married, money and debt is an issue that can enhance or destroy relationships. Choosing debt means having faith in a paycheck tomorrow, something truly suspect in our present economy. Spending money before it is made leads to less choices in the future. I've warned my children to be careful with how much school debt they incur. Go a year longer, work more, use a community college are all smart choices so they don't mortgage away their future.

On the other hand, learning to be generous, understanding to whom it all belongs in the first place, these change the heart and make us better companions on this journey of life.
Proverbs 11:25 "A generous man will prosper; he who refreshes others will himself be refreshed."
Prosperity in relationships is worth far more than any amount of money one could have.

Relationships that are in trouble often seek happiness in accumulating stuff. But that is hallow and lifeless. For the evidence, just look at how quickly the "new" factor wears off on Christmas Day.

Learning to live within and below your means is one of the best practices that leads to a healthy relationships.

5. Conflict. When I asked my friend, Dr. Baker: "What are the dirty jobs that people must do to have a healthy relationship," he immediately responded, "They must do conflict well. It is the number one predictor of a healthy relationship." Is said at the beginning, that "forgiveness if THE key to healthy relationships." This key of conflict confirms my thinking. Healthy conflict doesn't hold grudges or use past mistakes as a battering ram. Differences of opinion don't have to lead to the end of the relationship.

Jesus said that the world would know we are His disciples if we have love for one another (John 13:35). When Christians disagree and split, is it any wonder why the world looks on in dismay? We disagree and divorce each other. Christians are notorious for not handling conflict well.

Healthy conflict isn't about winning or losing. It starts with seeking to understand, uses "what" questions as opposed to "why" ones to seek information and insight. In a healthy relationship, when one loses, both lose. Healthy means the relationship wins. Finding ways to speak truth (as in forgivenss and Genesis 50:20) without accusatory attitudes and words leads to stronger bonds.

So there you have it, my toolbox of dirty jobs that we find difficult to practice. When I shared this the other day to our worship design team at Cornerstone, someone said: "Who wouldn't want to have sex!" We have to get these 5 things right in order to grow our hearts and the soul of our relationships. Starting on January 6, 2013 we're going to deal with each of these in order. Healthy relationships lead to healthy families which leads to healthy churches - which leads to healthy communities and a healthier nation and world. It all starts right at home, by looking in the mirror and being willing to take on this relationship destroyers.

What would you add to the list?

Friday, December 7, 2012

Agree to Disagree?

We'll just have to agree to disagree.

What's the saying: "I'll never please everyone, I'll only please some people some of the time." That's a reality in living with human beings - whether it's in marriage, in a small group, in a division at work, in a company or in the spiritual community of a church. I think it's even a reality when I'm having a converastion with me! I'm not always pleased with myself.

Everyone has someone who is a difficult person in life. Everyone is a difficult person to someone else. This phrase, "We'll just have to agree to disagree" doesn't find a lot of agreement in my life. Not that I don't agree it's sometimes the end point, I mean in practical terms like: "I feel good about leaving things here." I don't.

Communication is difficult between two people, in organizations, around small groups and in front of the mirror. People define words differently. Our hearing is skewed by past experiences as well as knowledge and pride. Sometimes we listen to someone else's words through a filter of distrust: "They're up to something. They're trying to be sneaky."

I don't like it when I'm not in agreement with my wife. I don't like it when I'm not in agreement with my staff. I don't like it when I'm not in agreement with people in the congregation. It irritates me. But it's why it irritates me that really irritates me. At least I think so!!

I believe I'm irritated by ending at this place because of ego. Plain and simple. How can someone disagree with my position! What arrogance - on my part. But that's it in a nutshell. At some level, we all think everyone should think like we do. My bent toward competition makes me think that at a higher level than normal.....and it's ego. I'm sure it's a combination of "I like to be liked" as well as "I like to be right." Either taken to an extreme isn't helpful.

I read Egonomics this summer. It contained some powerful lessons that led to some some difficult changes in my life - changes that I'm still living into. On page 29 I captured this quote:
If we lead with questions rather than answers, curiosity can strip us of an agenda and stop us from holding so tightly to our own ideas and beliefs that we aren't able to consider others. (Read more on my summer sabbatical blog - Ego, Ego - Friend or Foe?,  Being Effective or Being Right?)
Curious people create opportunities for open communication. Combined with humility, curiosity brings ego into check by insisting that together the team can create something better than one individual can do on their own.

I'm just not agreeable to leaving it at "let's agree to disagree." But I also know it's impossible to agree without everyone all the time.

From one who is still growing and learning.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Perhaps the Lord will show up

I've been spending some time in 1 Samuel chapter 14, with the story of Jonathan and his armor bearer. The scene was simple: The Philistines controlled the land and one way they kept that control was banning all blacksmiths in Israel. To sharpen a tool or have a sword made, Israel had to depend on the Philistines. It seems the sword orders were always "in process."

The Israelite army had two swords - King Saul's and his son Jonathan's. As the story goes, while the Army was sitting under a pomegranate tree, Jonathan decides it's time to act, time to move in faith. He takes his armor bearer and sets out to attack the Philistines.

14:6 Jonathan said to his young armor-bearer, “Come, let’s go over to the outpost of those uncircumcised men. Perhaps the Lord will act in our behalf. Nothing can hinder the Lord from saving, whether by many or by few.

I love the heart of Jonathan. Acting in faith doesn't mean all the details are worked out ahead of time. PERHAPS the Lord will show up on our behalf.

Perhaps God will move. Perhaps he won't. Perhaps we will experience a great victory, and perhaps we will die. Jonathan had courage because he knew God was in charge. He didn't have the details worked out—or even an assurance it would go as he hoped—but he did know that moving was right.

What would you have done? What do you do when there seems to be no way? Jonathan made a way. Here are some lessons:

1. Acting in faith means moving toward the unknown. The only known is God. We know God's character and promises. We don't know the details of how it will all work out.

2. Jonathan focused on what he had instead of what Israel didn't have. He had God; he had a sword; he had faith. That's all he needed. He had his armor-bearer too and that young man must have thought Jonathan was crazy! But he followed. Jonathan was a leader. He took what he had and used it to lead another as well as lead forward for God.

Afterall, Jonathan thought, we have half the weapons in all of Israel - let's go!

3. He followed an unconventional plan

14:8-10 “Come, then; we will cross over toward the men and let them see us. 9 If they say to us, ‘Wait there until we come to you,’ we will stay where we are and not go up to them. 10 But if they say, ‘Come up to us,’ we will climb up, because that will be our sign that the Lord has given them into our hands.”

The high ground is the good ground in a battle. Crawling on hands and knees was a distinct disadvantage. But he knew the Lord.

4. He took the difficult road to success. He crawled up, was probably tired and then had to engage the enemy. Just because the Lord shows up doesn't mean everything is easy. There is work to be done and He expects us to do it.

5. Don't forget the armor-bearer. The scripture says that he came behind Jonathan and killed the enemy with him.

14 "In that first attack Jonathan and his armor-bearer killed some twenty men in an area of about half an acre."

What did his armor-bearer use to kill Philistines? I can't wait to meet this guy and ask that question? Jonathan was only a leader because someone was following him. And that follower was enthusiastic and made things happen, despite his lack of weaponry.

Do you find yourself in a difficult situation, unsure about what to do, how to proceed? Perhaps follow Jonathan's lead. Trust in the promises of God. 

What else do you see in the story?

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Into the Learning Zone

I'm in Austin, TX for another swim meet, Senior Nationals on the campus of the University of Texas. It's an immense privilege to be able to participate at this level of swimming, with great people from around the country, many of whom have become good friends with whom we tend to pick up where we last left off.

I'm privileged to have a family who supports this pursuit even though they might find it, well, they might wonder a bit at my sanity to take vacation time to volunteer at an indoor swim meet, not getting to enjoy much of the warm weather (in a place like Austin) during the cold of a Midwest Winter. But they love me anyway!

Why do I do it? I think it's important to have a hobby or activity that is totally different from the paying job. There are important lessons to learn and growth to experience that I don't believe can happen by staying in one setting all the time.

1. Having a hobby helps push my comfort zone into the learning zone. Nobody wants to go to the panic zone, that place way beyond the learning zone. Everybody needs to go to the learning zone regularly. When I head off to a meet, especially one that requires a trip to an airport, I find myself more open to learning. I think it's the same reason a mission trip works so well to grow our faith. When we move into a different culture, a different setting, we can't depend on our usual senses and skills. We learn. We grow. 

2. Having a hobby frees my heart and mind to think in new ways, through different angles, about issues at work. Familiarity can breed stagnation. When I'm on a plane, on a pool deck, in a hotel lobby (like I am as I write this) or out to dinner with fellow officials, my mind can naturally drift to problems, difficulties, ideas and opportunities at work. I find I think about them differently, often leading to better conclusions and fresh ideas than would have been possible "inside."

3. Having a hobby grows my faith. As a Pastor I spend a lot of time with Christ-followers. Hanging with Christians all the time can grow faith but like a ship isn't made for a harbor, so a Christ-follower isn't made to stay inside the Church. My hobby gets me out with people from all different walks of life, with different thoughts about Christianity. I grow. I learn. I influence.

4. Having a hobby helps me get outside my area of discipline. Very similar to #1. I enjoy reading outside my discipline of theology because it grows my heart and mine. My hobby puts me in touch with people who lead companies and organizations. I have learned so much from airline pilots - lawyers - entrepreneurs - small business owners - teachers just to name a few. Through both observation and discussion I learn leadership that I can apply back home.

It's been a great year for growing as an official. The summer sabbatical grant afforded me the opportunity to participate in far more meets than usual, and in locations I'd never thought of going: Santa Clara (a great international meet), Missouri and of course to Omaha for Olympic Trials. I never thought I'd be at Trials. It was a tremendous experience!

This year has made me a better official, a better Pastor, a better leader, a better husband and father. I consistently revisit my summer blog posts, reminding me of the lessons learned (and the ones I'm still learning to apply), the areas of growth that remain (more to come no doubt) and the incredible privilege.

What are you doing to get yourself outside your comfort zone and into the learning zone?

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Live Simply, Part 2

The Raker's Starfish Kid - Pierre Monel
One of the phrases we use with our Live Simply Project came from a friend and colleague of mine named Mike. It's this: "It's not your birthday. It's Jesus' birthday!" Our culture does all it can to obscure the reason for the Christmas season. Hidden behind the need to possess the latest and greatest and at a "rock bottom price" is a life that is still transforming the world.

Live Simply has been a transforming ministry at Cornerstone Church. We're in a battle against the values of the world which seek to shape us into something other than God's desire and purpose.

"Don't let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould, but let God re-mould your minds from within, so that you may prove in practice that the plan of God for you is good..."
- Romans 12:2 (Phillips Translation)
A story this year that seems to capture the pressing of values is the people camping out for a week outside Best Buy. Taking vacation, to be the first one in the store so they can save money on some purchases. Probably a lot of money, but seriously? The pursuit of the temporary has taken over the valuing of anything eternal. When we switch from consuming to live to living to consume we've crossed a line that radically changes our internal compass.

The threat of consumerism reaches much deeper than we may realize. When it changes our hearts then it changes our culture and it infiltrates our approach to Jesus.
When we approach Christianity as consumers rather than seeing it as a comprehensive way of life, an interpretive set of beliefs and values, Christianity becomes just one more brand we consume along with Gap, Apple, and Starbucks to express identity. And the demotion of Jesus Christ from Lord to label means to live as a Christian no longer carries an expectation of obedience and good works, but rather the perpetual consumption of Christian merchandise and experiences - music, books, t-shirts, conferences, and jewelry. (Out of Ur Blogpost)
The Live Simply Project is a practical, radical way to push back, seeking to keep our feet firmly planted in the center of Jesus' moral compass. Giving generously to the poor instead of indulging ourselves with gifts we don't need and many that we won't use isn't a silver bullet or magic pill. We must be careful that we are not approaching the Project with a consumer mentality - if I do this then I can do other things throughout the rest of the year. Live Simply is about a lifestyle not a Christmas effort.

Extricating ourselves from the quicksand of Christmas consumerism isn't easy. It goes against family traditions, culture and our own memories and desires to live the nostalgia and tradition again.

Here's the challenge to Cornerstone Church: cut back on what you buy for Christmas and give that portion away to the poor. What about these other ideas:

  • buying no gifts and instead focusing on family and living out the Gospel story perhaps by serving at a soup kitchen on Christmas Day
  • sending a card to friends and family that states something like this: your Christmas gift this year is a financial gift to feed and educate an orphan in Guatemala
  • supporting an orphan as a family and saving the usual Christmas gift finances to send an individual (perhaps you) on a mission trip to Guatemala or Haiti to serve that child and others with your own hands
Living Simply isn't about a season or a moment in time. It's about a heart change. Right now is a great time to take that first step. How are you going to live more simply this year? If you'd like to know more about Cornerstone's efforts, follow this link (The Live Simply Project) or comment on this post.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Live Simply

Live more simply so that others
might simply live

This has been our rallying call for the past 9 years around Cornerstone Church. It's not a call to skimp on toilet paper just because it's cheaper. It's a call to focus on the heart of God when everything around us tugs at us, pulls at us, screams at us to come over to the dark side. The dark side for me is the consumer side, the side that tells us we have to spend our way through Christmas so that we can pay for it during the first 3 months of next year, along the way missing the whole reason for the celebration in the first place.

9 years ago we started the Live Simply Project as a way to help us connect with the heart of God. The goal is simple [as it should be]: spend less on yourself and give that portion to the poorest of the poor in our world. For Cornerstone we encourage people to support a child in "our" orphanage in Guatemala called Fundaninos or a child in Haiti through Starfish Kids. Then we have a general offering which goes for a different project each year, with a tithe (10%) of that offering going to our local mission partner, Hamilton Living Water Ministries.

In 9 years we've invested over $460,000 into changing lives around the world. And while we've made an impact in our world, the change we've seen in our own lives has been just as significant.

Wal-mart, Target, Michael's (with whom my wife has a craft affair!) are all opening on Thursday for shopping. The creep continues....and it's getting closer. What will you do to push back? Will you resist the pull?

It's my opinion that if I want to be close to the heart of God then I need to be close to those that are close to God's heart. Who is that? It's the poor.
Proverbs 14:31 "Whoever oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God."
When children approach me with bags of coins collected year round, I know it's working. 
When children have birthday parties but say, in lieu of presents, bring money for Live Simply, I know it's working.
When families actually do cut down on Christmas gift purchases and give like never before, I know it's working.
Consumerism captures us. It enslaves us to debt, spending our money before we earn it. It encrusts our hearts with a desire for more, making us less plyable in the hands of the Potter. What will you do this year to resist the encroachment?

If you'd like to know more about the live simple project, call the church office (513-874-0910) or comment on this blog and I'll be in touch. Consider what you might give this year. Generosity is one of the best ways to free yourself from the claws of consumerism. What will you do this year?

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Be Followable Today

A colleague, Dan Metzger, writes a blog called Being Followable and the title has really been rolling around my heart the past few weeks approaching Election Day.

For a Christ-follower the goal is not the election of "our" candidate (if there is such a thing) - it is most certainly not about bashing others with whom we don't agree. 

The most important thing I can do today is live a life that others can follow to find Jesus. Most  unchurched people I know don't have as much problem with the Church as they do with churched people who don't act like Jesus. Be followable.

Today I want to live a life that makes it hard for people to go to hell; to live in such a way that people can find Jesus in me.

This past Sunday I said: "Should the election of anyone shake the faith of a Christ-follower?" I don't think so because our trust and faith are not in any human being.

Psalm 20:7 "Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God."
Psalm 146:3 "Do not put your trust in princes, in mortal men, who cannot save."
So today I will vote. And then I will seek to live in such a way that the name of Jesus is glorified. I will not spend my time villifying someone with whom I disagree politically.

Someone asked me the other day if I was a Republican or a Democrat. My reply was simple: "Nobody at Cornerstone knows that because it's not the most important thing to know. I serve Democrats and Republicans and Independents. Together we're seeking to serve Jesus."

I can be concerned. I can be confused. I can be upset or disappointed. I can believe that our country is going in the right or wrong direction. I can be overjoyed. I can be excited about the future or feel like I stand on shifting sands of uncertainty. None of it matters. All of it is temporal. None of it is eternal.

I look forward to gathering with donkeys and elephants on the last Ark. We'll get to spend it together because the last time I checked, it wasn't red or blue, donkey or elephant that might separate us from God. The only thing that matters is a personal relationship with Jesus as Savior and Lord. 

I'm not arrogant enough to think that everything I believe is exactly correct. I seek to live out God's Word in my daily life, extending His Kingdom and being Jesus to those around me. One day God will probably say to me: "Jeff, you made an inconsequential idea central to what you believed. You made a mountain out of a molehill."

So today, be followable. Make it easy for people to believe in Jesus no matter what you believe politically. And pray for our country, that our leaders will have wisdom and strength to lead us.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Ordinary People

Jason Gray sound check
God uses ordinary people for extraordinary things. I've said it. You've heard it. It became real again for me last night at a concert by Todd Agnew & Jason Gray @ Cornerstone. I had the chance to listen to them warm up, interacted with them casually, heard their stories during the concert and learned more about them on the drive to their hotel in Dayton in the wee hours of Monday!
Todd Agnew

Todd Agnew & Jason Gray w Spencer on percussion
They're ordinary guys - husbands, fathers, servants, musicians, followers of Jesus. They struggle with the same stuff I do. They are overjoyed with the same stuff that brings joy to my life - my kids! They love serving, helping people worship, honoring our Lord.

During the concert, Todd talked about the atmosphere being a "safe place" to share some stuff about life. As we neared the hotel I brought it up, saying: "When people ask me to describe Cornerstone I nearly always say 'It's a safe place for people to ask tough questions.'" If there's a piece of pride I could have about Cornerstone it is that. We have tried to make room for ordinary people to ask questions, the questions that keep them up at night; the confusing questions they wrestle with; the questions that have no answers.
Mark & Debbie Peters w Jason Gray
Jason and I talked about that last one on the ride. We both enjoy reading and of the different authors we both read, one favorite in common is Philip Yancey. He's not afraid to ask difficult questions and not come to a clear answer by the end of a book. Where he does come to that we both appreciate is a trust and faith in God who holds both the questions and the answers together.

Ordinary guys seeking to serve Jesus. Christian music stars who miss being around their families. Todd who calls his wife, first thing after a concert - family first, fans second. Jason who follows his wife's direction for sleep instead of a phone call. Smart man!

I appreciated hearing about struggles, ways God is growing their hearts, difficulties that some would use as excuses (like Jason's stuttering). Sometimes we raise people up on a pedestal, thinking they're different from the rest of us. I do it. Then I watch Jason kneel down in front of Drew, a young man disabled in a car wreck four years ago. He's a Jason Gray fan. Nobody else needed to see it, just Jason, Drew and Drew's parents. Ordinary people serving with what God has given.
One of my swim coaches reminded us about the competition - "they put their pants on the same way you do, one leg at a time." Every athlete I know has been injured - some choose to work through it - some choose to use it as an excuse. Every Christian I know wrestles with the same stuff - temptations, realizing how much they don't know, the memory of poor choices, wanting to grow in the discipline of prayer, burdened by concerns, missing family. Every marriage has the same issues. Every teenager feels the same way.

You are ordinary. I am too. We each have talents and gifts, God created, God given through Jesus. What will we do with them? We can allow the difficult things of life to make us think we're different, that the universe is against us. Or we can realize our shortcomings and fears and concerns remind us that we're human, and choose to give ourselves grace for the journey. God can do amazing things when ordinary people say, "Here I am Lord, send me."

w Jason Gray

Friday, October 26, 2012

Do I Have to Grow Up?

Everybody I know loves to: graduate from high school and become more independent - turn 21 and be legal - begin doing more and more things on their own. Growing up is the natural and normal thing to do in life. We are supposed to mature. It's normal. Of course, once we get there we usually realize we don't enjoy all the responsibility that goes along with our independence, but that's the way it goes.

I am beginning to meet with people around Cornerstone's 20th Anniversary in 2013. It's hard to believe it's been 20 years since I helped make phone calls to get the word out that a new church was starting in West Chester, Ohio. Someone came up with an idea: what if we think in terms of growing up, taking more responsibility, maturing, moving on as we turn 20?

What does it mean for a Christ-follower or a Church to grow up? To move from milk to solid food? It's been a question from the earliest days of the Church:
In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! - Hebrews 5:12
Peter Scazzero authored a book about church health called The Emotionally Healthy Church. As I worked my way through an issue of Leadership Journal on Transformation, I came upon an interview with Peter. This paragraph struck me:
But people were not changing deeply. It really showed when there was stress and conflict in the church. It was clear to me that we had a big problem......We had a lot of people saying they were on fire for Jesus, but they were still arrogant, still proud, stull nursing conflicts like they were 12 years old. I thought to myself, Something's not right here. (italics his)
Scazzero goes on to talk about the need to, as a leader, look inside first and then he talks about his need and desire for people to "grow up" in the Christian faith. It wasn't happening and it bugged him. It bugs me.

When Christ-followers encounter "stress and conflict" in their lives, in their church, in their work or family, sometimes there is an ugly display of unChristian behavior that betrays their claim to be Followers. Saved maybe, but transformed - evidence says no. When people turn to Facebook and Twitter to let everyone know how "pissed off" they are and how horrible someone else is, it is evidence that transformation has not happened. It makes me wonder where we went wrong - where I went wrong - where the Church around the world has gone wrong.

Where did we go wrong in helping people grow up spiritually?

The Book of Galatians gives a great list by which to judge our own lives, showing where we're growing up or staying put, mired in the muck of sin.
The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God. 
Galatians 5:19-21
It has been said that character is not so much developed as it is exposed during difficult times. Whether it's the athlete getting beat, the illness that suddenly strikes, the tragedy caused by evil that jumps into our lives, how we have developed our character will show. When we are vulnerable, who are we? Too many church-goers and Christ-followers are defined by this first list in Galatians.

The untransformed life is characterized by these things. Disagreements, sure. Difficulties, no doubt a reality with human beings doing life together. But what then?

Weekend worship attendance 2-3 times a month won't bring the kind of transformation Jesus intends. When a family gives up church for sports, what foundation is provided when the sports are over? The temporal excitement of now can cut the legs out from the bliss of eternity. There is no such thing as part-time discipleship.

Thankfully, there's more to the story. There's another list that describes a different path to pursue. 
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. - Galatians 5:22-23a
Two key points help unlock this list for me: 1) these character traits are the natural result of the presence and work of God's Spirit in our lives. These are not things we have to force to grow in our lives. We might practice some spiritual disciplines to help support their growth but they are the result of living a life connected to Jesus. 2) this is one fruit demonstrated nine ways. The ultimate fruit of the Spirit is love - that's the way the Greek words it. Everything flows from love.

The key for me is staying connected to a small group. I love those in my group. They laugh at me when I'm trying to fake it. They support me when I'm struggling. They challenge me as I try to grow my faith. They tell me the truth. I can't do life without them.

Are you growing up or staying put? What character was revealed the last time you encountered stress or difficulty in your life? Those who pursue Jesus will be revealed in the end. Those who don't - the same is true.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Next Steps.....

I've been wrestling with a question - How do you know what your next steps are? It's a step beyond my previous post What Do You Do When You Don't Know What to Do? Sometimes a plan isn't clear. Sometimes the boundaries are laid out but you aren't sure if it's soccer, football or baseball that you're playing. In different cultures, football refers to different games. Knowing the rules of the game is a must to playing the right game.

I finally figured it out. I figured out the game to be played within the boundaries that have been established. It's a freeing thing. Now I can lay out a game plan.

Think about what happens when two people in a marriage have different expectations about the goal. One has soccer in mind. The other wants to play touch football! Similar fields, each thinking there are funny lines for the game. It can create confusion and mind-numbing frustration.

When two different people have two different values - as far as what the ultimate goal is - in other words, the definition of success, endless conflict can be the outcome. One is playing with a football, the other uses a softball and neither can figure out why the other can't run the right play or even catch the ball that was so perfectly thrown - or pitched - or hit right to them.

One asks: "Who's on first?" and the other thinks they're calling the "Who" play for 1st down.

Clarity of how success is defined is an essential piece for knowing what the next steps are. It brings a real sense of peace. Nothing is more frustrating than thinking you're succeeding only to find out others are pushing for something else. It helps when everyone is moving toward the same goal line.

It happens in marriages with expectations.

We watch it in politics - big government and taxes, small government and taxes - Democrats v Republicans.

It happens in churches, which is where my life has been spent. Some have a goal of everyone feeling good. Others have a goal of making disciples. There are a host of other divergent thoughts on what success looks like in a church. What I know is that when success is defined differently then conflict, confusion and frustration are inevitable.

To find my next steps I asked a lot of questions, trying my best to stay away from "why" questions. Too much emotion with "why." "What" is a far better way to finding clarity. It does no good to shoot the messenger. It doesn't help to display anger. Speak truth. Share your perceptions. Learn the rules of the game and then get in the game.

So off we go.

Unclear? Find your next steps so you know what ball to pick up to play the game.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

What Do You Do When You Don't Know What To Do?

Today I prayed for a friend and his family. It was one of those times when the Lord made it clear He wanted me to pray for them. So I did. And in obedience and possibly being thought of a fool, I let them know the Lord has their lives in His hands - He asked me to pray. It doesn't happen every day and sometimes not even every month. Often people say "Thank you" but have nothing specific that they know of going on. Doesn't matter to me. I'm just being obedient to what I believe God is calling me to do.

Today my friend responded. I'm not sure what he thought. He was part of another church I Pastored and he left during my time there. But he said: "Thank you. I've been asking God for some wisdom and direction and I'm not hearing anything. I'm not sure what to do."

Everybody struggles with that uncertain feeling from time to time. Here are some things I've found helpful.

1 - Do the next right thing. I'm not sure where this orginated but it's good wisdom. Doing the next right thing is the best thing when you don't know what to do. It's a place to start. Finding yourself feeling trapped is the worst feeling, wondering if you have any options. It's there that we often make our worst choices. This piece of wisdom keeps me on the straight path.

2 - Pray. I mean really pray. Don't pray on the run. Take some moments and pray. Just the other day I was walking through Cornerstone's Worship Center with my fresh, hot mug of tea and I stopped, knelt down and prayed. I was in one of these places with a situation. It helped. It was the next right thing.

3 - Think about Rhythms. When I don't know what to do I think about the rhythms of my life - my spiritual disciplines - my physical exercise - what I'm eating - how I'm sleeping. When I leave a rhythm in my life I don't think as clearly. Returning to it brings clarity to my heart and mind. But there is another side. Sometimes I find breaking a rhythm is helpful.

During my Sophomore year in college I hit a wall physically as a competitive swimmer. It didn't matter how hard I tried or how stretched out and easy I swam - the times were the same. Very frustrating! Turns out there were issues with my left trap muscle and shoulder but in the end I really think I pushed my body as far as it would go.

In the midst of that difficult season Coach Keefe suggested doing something different - "Do something for yourself," he said. My choice at the time was a pint of UDF Ice Cream every day (and I mean every day!). It tasted great, I burned it off in practice and it made a difference in how I felt about this struggle.

Think about rhythms in your life. It may be you need to return to one, shift one or pick up a new one.

4 - Speak the Truth. Not knowing what to do can give us a feeling of being trapped. Sharing your frustration with a friend can help open up new ideas, new options. Speaking out loud about your frustration is like a healing balm itself.

Not knowing what to do gives the feeling of being trapped. These steps open new windows in our emotional dead ends. 

What do you do when you don't know what to do?