Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Behavior Makes a Difference

I've witnessed - and so have you - some of the most skilled teachers, some of the most gifted athletes, some of the most effective leaders - who have behaviors that short-circuit their careers. In fact, we all have behaviors that aren't helpful but only some decide to do something about it.

I recently watched a talented athlete lose it in the heat of the moment, revealing a character that could easily cut short a career. We read about such events in the news and the court dockets, from financial malfeasance to simple rude and selfish behavior, people implode with actions that stunt their growth.

Some of the most frequent include:
  • An Inability to Learn from Criticism - while it's easier when offered in grace, there are lessons to be learned even from our harshest critics. Whether it's a performance review or an accountability group, we all need someone who will share truth with us
  • Learning to Deal with Failure - often our identity is caught up in our performance, perhaps expecially for an athlete. Learning to step forward on failure rather than letting it define us is an essential skill for persevering as a leader, athlete or coach. 
  • Not Listening to Others - people know when we're not listening. Learning about body language can be incredibly helpful but so are those simply listening techniques we've all heard (if we were listening).
  • Faulty Perceptions - it's difficult, especially if you're the senior leader, to get honest feedback from your team. Learning ways to seek out the truth is essential to gaining a true perception of your leadership. We human beings are great at fooling ourselves, thinking we're better than we really are.
I've made all these mistakes, and more. No one can be forced to learn. I'm grateful for the coaches and teachers and pastors who sought to add value to my life. I'm disappointed that I didn't listen each time.

The key to change is a change in behavior. And we all have behaviors that we need to change. But how? Here are some things that have worked for me:

1. Recognize and accept that I have blindspots and need help. It's similar to the first step of AA - admitting we are powerless. Until I own that I don't have it all together, I'll never be open to learning new things. That's a painful reality but an essential step.

2. Engage with a coach or gather an accountability group. Changing behavior requires the help of others. Period. Executive coaches are experts in the behavior arena (and Sherpa Coaching is one of the best) and can lead a client to see weaknesses and offer tools for lasting behavior change. These relationships take account of behavior changes and the results. It's not about just thinking differently but behaving differently.

3. Reading. Leaders are learners and anyone who is not learning is no longer leading. Asking others what they are reading is helpful to making sure I expose myself to new thoughts instead of staying in my comfort zone.

We all have behaviors that are getting in our way. What are you doing about yours?

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Things Every Leader Must Do

Caring for yourself is not a selfish thing to do but it is one of the most neglected duties of a leader. Sometimes it is referred to as "self-leadership." If someone can't lead themselves, how can he or she hope to lead others?

Throughout nearly 3 decades of learning and applying leadership, self-care has been the thing I may have done the best. I say that based on what friends, colleagues and accountability partners have said to me. I'm proud of that. The concept found it's way into my 50th Birthday axioms:

Take time for myself. Refresh. Renew. Recharge. Refocus. Regularly.

Here are the most valuable things I done over these years. It is these activities that make my leadership actions more effective and focused.

1. Read and learn. A leader is a learner. A leader is a reader. I read voraciously, pouring over a wide range of topics. I don't read just church leadership and theology books. I love history, particularly the colonial period, so my shelves are filled with historical fiction and non-fiction about the period. For the past 2 years I've begun reading articles and blog posts from Harvard Business Review (HBR). The point is my reading isn't just about leading a church but about leading both myself (with topics such as "how to not let e-mail waste my time") and people in general.

My books will not be worth much when I'm gone because I mark them up. I bracket sentences and paragraphs, sometimes adding a topical notation and then some wonderful volunteers type them into files. These become searchable notes for teaching, planning, sharing and continued learning.

Two apps are helping me read and learn these days. I really enjoy Flipboard on my iPad. It allows me to get the gist of an article to see if I want to capture the whole thing. The second is Evernote. I am an Evernote fanatic, having gone 95% paperless around my home and office. Evernote is not a toy but a great tool that has made me more organized and the information I deem important more accessible. These have helped me learn and grow even on the run.

2. Sabbath. It should seem to be a no-brainer that a Pastor would regularly practice a sabbath rest, so prominently put forth in the fourth commandment. It is not the case unless I plan for it. And I understand most every other job doesn't allow for it.

One of my final classes at Asbury Seminary was with my friend Dr. Steve Harper. We addressed the spiritual life of Pastors, a great class for those of us ready to launch out of the seminary nest and dive full-time into the world of the local church. One book helped prepare me for the priority of a sabbath - Working the Angles by Eugene Peterson. He encouraged sabbath as one of the key components of a healthy soul, a foundation for the work of ministry in the local church. I began to practice these "days away" immediately and I truly think they made ministry a long-term calling, saving me from the burnout that can so easily come.

Sabbath isn't about doing something in particular. I encouraged full-time staff to take one day a month as a Sabbath. There was no report on what was done. Doing something isn't the point. Some wanted to prescribe the "what" but that essentially destroys the practice. Sabbath is about honoring God and that can differ from month to month and person to person.

Sabbath for me has become about making sure my soul is full of God. Sometimes the most spiritual thing I could do was sleep. Other times it was spending special time with my wife. Some days have been spent along the Ohio River in Bicentennial Park with a Bible, some paper and a pen, but no agenda.

My practice has been: a day a month, 2-4 days twice a year. It's what's worked for me.

3. Vacation. A sabbath is not a vacation, even though I might turn off my cell phone and stay away from email on both. I made sure that I took vacation time, realizing that the office would take as much time as I'd give it. Memorable times included: 23 days out west pulling a pop-up camper, the northern route to the Pacific and back through the central U.S.; 14 days along the East Coast, sort of a Colonial theme; 18 days to Greece & Israel; 12 days on a 25th Anniversary cruise to Alaska; and those 12 years to Key Largo after Christmas with my father-in-law.

A combination of sabbath and vacation fueled my decision to take a 3-month Sabbatical in 2012. Privileged to receive a Lily Grant, I took off from Memorial Day to Labor Day. It remains today the most important decision I made to renew, refresh and retool: a marriage conference; some swim meets, including Olympic Trials; a trip to England & Scotland with the family; my son and I to Costa Rica for fishing and whitewater rafting; and I also programmed in time with an executive coach who could press me. While I unplugged from the day to day of the church world, I made sure I had someone who would challenge my assumptions and point out my blindspots. I worked on my marriage, made memories with family, furthered my officiating experience and grew as a leader. It was all well worth the effort.

Too many people are afraid to get away, fearful of what might happen while they're gone. I understand that more than you know. But your family and your ministry (whether full-time or as a local church servant) deserve it and will benefit from it. Even with everything that happened the months following my sabbatical, we've agreed we wouldn't change our choice.

4. Physical Health. I've always leaned toward the healthy side of living. Having been a competitive swimmer for 16 years, I know the value of exercise and how easy it is to get out of shape. It was extremely difficult if not impossible for some years as we had teenagers in the house. But I know that we make time for the things that are important.

When my dad died just shy of 75 years (about 7 years ago) I renewed my determination to stay healthy. I re-engaged a regimen of racquetball and swimming, and added P90X. While I'm not in the best shape of my life (that was as a college athlete), I am in the best shape of my life since then. This is the only body I get and I want it to be an asset not a detriment.

I want to serve Jesus to my last breath

I understand some things are not under my control but I'm doing whatever I can to make sure this body serves the Kingdom rather than allowing my body to limit my service to the Kingdom. I'm on medication for an out-of-balance cholesterol issue, but I'll still do everything I can to control it without the meds. I don't want to waste dollars on health care that can be cared for by some self-leadership on my part.

It's been said that exercise will add two years to your life - although you'll spend those two years exercising! I'll take it. The benefits of how I feel are well worth it. Exercise and healthy eating give me more energy and better focus to be a more attentive husband, better father, more consistent friend and more grateful servant of Jesus.

What are you doing to lead yourself? How could these four priorities work in your life? Anyone can just go through life. It takes self-leadership to go through life with intention and purpose.

Friday, February 14, 2014

4 Acts to Deal with High Maintenance People

There's the control freak and the backstabber, the gossip and the critic. Some relationships seem like an impenetrable fortress. But just like the Berlin Wall crumbled nearly 25 years ago, so there is hope for those intractable relationships that can drive us crazy.

A professor in Seminary called them crazy-makers. Christian psychologist and author, Les
Parrott wrote a book about them called High Maintenance Relationships. Many name them simply as difficult people. The Bible uses the term “fool” that seems to describe many of the same people.
Relationships are the school for building character, allowing us the chance to study in great detail and over time temperaments that are different from our own. (High Maintenance Relationships, Parrott, p. 7-8)
These are the people who can drain the life out of us. But the problem is this: somebody else calls us high maintenance or difficult. Often the things that irritate us the most do so because they remind us of ourselves.

1st - Look inside first
Da Vinci drawing - Queens
Gallery, London
Jesus' wisdom about dealing with high maintenance people is first about growing yourself. The starting point for growing and maintaining healthy relationships even with people who seem impossible is to ask the right questions and look inside first. We have to face the critic, wet blanket, steamroller, backstabber, sponge, competitor or chameleon in us.

Luke 6:41-42 "Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? 42 How can you say to your brother, 'Brother, let me take the speck out of your eye,' when you yourself fail to see the plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye.”

I have to face the fact that one of the reasons critical people irritate me the most is that I might be that critical person to others. Ouch! Jesus is clear – if it's healthy relationships you are seeking then look inside first.

2nd - Establish limits
2 Timothy 4:14-17 “Alexander the metalworker did me a great deal of harm. The Lord will repay him for what he has done. 15 You too should be on your guard against him, because he strongly opposed our message. 16 At my first defense, no one came to my support, but everyone deserted me. May it not be held against them. 17 But the Lord stood at my side and gave me strength, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it."

Alexander was a difficult person in Paul's life and he warns others to set limits.

Here's the question I wrestle with in dealing with the Alexander's in my life: How much do I work toward a healthy relationship and when does the point come when I have to let it be and move on with God's greater purpose for my life? Here's where it gets sticky. Is the “greater purpose” of my life to befriend the difficult person? How many friends does that person have and is God calling me to be that friend?

Is it a waste of time to spend time with someone who is difficult? I don't think so. Not if I understand the Gospel of Jesus. There are also encounters of Jesus with people who rejected Him and He let them walk away. The rich young ruler was pompous and arrogant, wanting to look better than everyone else. But when Jesus told him the real barrier to finding real life was his possessions and that the young man should sell them and give the money to the poor, the man walked away. Jesus didn't follow him. And so I wrestle with it. Where do I spend my time and efforts?

3rd - Seek to understand
In the heat of a conflict, when the emotions are raw, this can be hard to do. Try to walk in the difficult person's shoes. The critic may have been raised to be a critic. When one is always criticized it's difficult to not become critical.

Three of us were meeting for a phone call. While two of us were waiting for the third to arrive we were listening to a voicemail that was on a parallel track to the next conversation. It was not essential but the two of us had some moments and listened. About half way through the voicemail, the third person walked in and his first words were: “Did you start without me?” I wanted my first thought to be: “That person must be having a difficult day?” But that was not my first thought. God's got a lot of room to improve my heart! Admittedly, I had known that person as one of my difficult people. Unfortunately his response didn't surprise me.

Seek to understand. Put the heart and needs of the other first. The problem with high maintenance relationships is that we become weary and weariness leads to things like short-tempers and assumptions. In the end there's no room for grace. 

That's why it's so important to spend time in God's Word every day and to spend time in conversation with the Lord. I can't do this on my own. Without God's help I don't put other first, I put me first.

4th - Guard your heart
High maintenance people can drag you down quickly by making you think about them, have conversations with them, become obsessed with figuring out ways to get along with them. You've got to guard your heart.
Proverbs 4:23 “Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.” 
Be careful what you allow to settle in your heart.
Proverbs 24:12 If you say, "But we knew nothing about this,"does not he who weighs the heart perceive it? Does not he who guards your life know it?Will he not repay each person according to what he has done?”
Leave retribution to the Lord. Guard your heart from thinking revenge or getting even. Nothing in scripture says get even. It always says that God will take care of those who live for Him.

I've found that if the thought of somebody keeps me up at night; if I wake up thinking about this person; if I begin talking to this person in the midst of praying for the person; if I'm that distracted then I've got a problem. My heart is being infected. Many high maintenance people spread a highly contagious virus. We can too easily become negative. Once infected with negativism it becomes a natural way of relating.

On one of my trips to Haiti I picked up several hearts carved from stone. I keep one on my desk to remind me that God softened this heart of stone and His call on my life is to work with hard-hearted people just like me. God is in the business of softening hard hearts and He invites us into partnership with Him. These four acts have helped me along the way with still a long way to go.

Monday, February 10, 2014

5 Questions to Grow A Marriage

Marriage is not for the faint of heart. Marriage takes strength, skill, stamina and supernatural action to grow it into the kind of relationship we all want and that God intended it to be.

To make a better marriage takes two commitments to stick with it - better or worse - richer or poorer - sick or well. I'm so thankful marriage vows are not multiple choice or my wife would have gotten rid of me years ago.

After nearly 28 years, I've found these 5 questions are helpful to growing a marriage.

1. How can I serve today?
When my view for the day is to be a servant then my marriage will be stronger. The goal of this relationship is to out-serve one another. It's in those little things - replacing the empty toilet paper roll, putting the lid down, putting my dishes away and dirty laundry in the hamper. If it's a clean kitchen sink or a bed that gets made each day that helps her feel better about life, then that's the way I can best serve.

2. How can I love today?
Love is action, not a feeling. Whether I feel like it or not, I'm called to love my wife. My action cannot be based on what she does or doesn't do. Marriage is a covenant where each partner is called to give 100%. There is no halfway or my part / your part. I'm not called to tolerate - simply put up with. I'm called to love and I can't love if I'm only tolerating. It's also helpful to remember, hard as it is to believe, that there are things I do that irritate her…..and she still loves me.

3. How can I pray today?
Prayer is the most powerful action I can take to grow my marriage. Over these years my prayers have changed. They used to be more self-centered, about changing the things I wanted to see changed in our relationship and that usually meant "her things."

Some years into marriage I realized that Jesus is praying for us, "interceding for us" at the Father's right hand (Romans 8:34). And if Jesus is praying then I want to know what He is praying for her. Those are the prayers that will be answered. Those are the prayers with which I want to agree.

Learning to pray throughout the day has helped me pray for my marriage. (How to Pray Constantly)

4. How can I encourage today?
We meet so many things in our day to day that the one thing we need at home more than any other is encouragement. When I find ways to encourage her, life is better (happy wife = happy life!). When I know her passion and her goals, I can say those most powerful words: "I believe in you!"

5. How can I give grace today?
It is in the covenant of marriage that I've learned a new depth of grace. I have hurt her. She has hurt me. We have had ample opportunity to practice forgiveness. Grace means we don't hold grudges, we don't bring up past hurts, we move forward having learned about ourselves and each other. Finding ways to give grace - undeserved, unearned blessing and favor - is what brings depth to a marriage. The grace we experience from Jesus becomes the grace we pass on to our mate.

How will you grow your marriage?

Friday, February 7, 2014

Stepping Forward on Failure

Due to the generous critique of others in my life I've become more than I could have been and I still have such a long way to go. I've failed many times but the times I used failure as a stepping stone led to the greatest growth in my life.

I've been privileged in my relatively short lifetime to enjoy experiences I could not have dreamed up on my own. My travels have taken me to awesome places made better by the people I met both there and along the way.

With my hobby of volunteering with USA Swimming as an official, I've met some awesome people - officials, swimmers and coaches. One memory seared into my mind was the near jog while walking the stroke position in Indianapolis, watching as Michael Phelps set the then world record in the 100 fly.....the whole time thinking two things: 1) don't trip, don't trip and 2) Michael, don't do anything illegal! Please don't do anything illegal!

I'm still not sure exactly how I've gotten to work at so many great meets but I know I had to work hard to cooperate with the plans of those who saw in me what I didn't at the time. It all happened because I stepped forward on failure.

I clearly remember my first starting session (as a starter). Standing on deck at Bowling Green University where you can't hide from anyone, surrounded my parents and other spectators.
My friends: Joni Biesel & Julie Allen

A heat of 9-10 boys was whistled up on the blocks. The referee extended his hand and I hit the start button without saying, "Take Your Mark!" It was chaos. Some boys fell in the pool. Some looked over at me with a face that said: “What was that?” Some dove in. Some looked in the stands for mom! And I'm sure a few moms glared at me for ruining their photo op!

The Referee whistled them back up and the start was spot on. Not an auspicious beginning. But I learned that there's no starter jail for failing. You don't get put away for a mistake. But I can put myself away if I quit trying.

I've made plenty more mistakes since then. One time I didn't listen to my mentor and shifted my "usual" position on deck, which led to some not so great starts. There are times to experiment and times to stick with what already works.

After each "failure" I could have stopped, not gotten back behind the mic. I'd failed, made a mistake. But it's not the mistake that matters. It's what happens with the next start. What does the mistake do to me? What does a mistake do to you?

One of my 50th birthday lessons was:

Every start has a lesson. Learn the lesson. Forget the start.

Trials and tribulations are transportation for where you are going.

Everyone fails. I can tell you a hundred ways not to do things. But I can also tell you 1 way to do each of them right. My list of failures and mistakes is far longer than my list of successes and triumphs. I've learned more from my failures, from my mistakes, than I ever did from my successes. I really wish that wasn't the way life worked but it is.

One of the ways that I decided to grow my own leadership skills was through training to be a certified executive coach. Coaching helps clients grow in their leadership capacity. Getting through weaknesses is the approach of this training.

Strengths will only get us so far in our impact on business. To level up we have to take care of some weaknesses. Here's what that training taught me:

The unexamined life is not worth living.

I meet with a group of 5 men, regularly interacting with them as individuals and several times a year as a group. We keep each other from sloppy living. Without them I might think I'm better than I am.

As I began to officiate Senior Nationals, Junior Nationals and Grand Prix meets I was impressed with how much the top athletes examined every swim – every turn – every start – every lap. In a corner of every one of those decks you will find USA Swimming staff filming and helping critique events for the National and Junior National team members. They swim, warm down and then watch film.

I stood over the lanes of the elite of the elite at the 2012 Swimming Olympic Trials in Omaha. One morning at Prelims I was stationed in lane 4 at the start end. The first 5 heats in each event were filled with good swimmers – obviously some of the top in the nation. But then came the last 3 heats. There in succession: Clary, Phelps & Lochte; Soni & Hardy;
Grevers & Thoman. I was amazed, noticing a huge difference in technique compared to the first 5 heats. The precision, the smoothness, the continuity was an impressive contrast to the others. The elite respond when their swimming is examined.

God didn't design us to figure out life alone. We're not that smart. We too easily fool ourselves into thinking we're better than we really are. Learn. Watch. Adjust. Ask for advice.

Most couples who end up coming to me to save their marriage waited too long to ask for help. How are you at taking constructive criticism? How are you at asking for help?

It's not a sign of weakness but of self-awareness – of truth and reality. Do you have people in your life who point out sloppiness in your life? I know if I'd listened more and applied more of what my coaches told me  I would have been faster in the water.

A couple of months ago I was preparing to compete for the first time in about 10 years. The University of Cincinnati alumni meet was the next day. So at the end of my practice with the coaches from Countryside Y in Lebanon and another coach who swims with us, I decided I should dive off a block – a block I hadn't been on in 10 years. So I swam a 50 and at the end asked the the others - “Ok, what do I need to do differently tomorrow?” 

Brad and Kevin, two elite coaches in our area, both said: “Turnover. Turnover has to be faster.”

I replied: “Have you seen my kids swim? It's genetic.”

By the way, I won my age group but not my heat. In my heat was 2010 NCAA D1 50 free champ, Josh Schneider. He was finishing his 100 while I was in the third turn! (I'm the guy on the right just in case you have trouble!)

Examine your life. Listen to critics and supporters alike. Learn whatever you can from your mistakes and failures and move on to the next thing. The only failure that is an end is the one after which you don't get back up and try again. Fail forward.

I have a compass on my desk. My family believes it is there because I need one to follow directions. We did usually took the circuitous route on most vacations! But I digress.

Leaning against the compass is a calligraphied card:

The compass matters more than the calendar.
It's the direction you're going that matters more
then the speed with which you are getting there.

It's not how quickly you get to the goal, it's making sure you're headed toward the right goal. Delays are going to occur. Detours are bound to happen. Examine the life of Joseph from the Bible and you see detour and delay but a life consistently pointed in the same direction with integrity and a desire for excellence which God honored.

A few years ago, Ryan Lochte came to talk to the officials at Senior Nationals @ Ohio State. He told us of a serious injury to his knee while either break-dancing or skate boarding. It kept him out of the water for a number of months. It was during that time, he said, that he stopped drinking pop, got rid of junk food and candy and began doing whatever he could without being in the water, the thing that would benefit his performance.

If we believe our talents are inborn and fixed, then we'll avoid failure at all costs because failure is proof of our limitation. If our mindset is to grow, then we'll step on failure and get a leg up.

The Disciple of Jesus named Peter is my favorite because he was bold, made bold mistakes and failed miserably but still he was counted in Jesus' inner circle.

There was a time when the disciples were in a boat and Jesus came walking on the water. Peter asked, boldly and probably a bit arrogantly, to come walking on the water too. With his eyes on Jesus, Peter stepped out of the boat and walked toward the Lord. But then, the Scripture says, Peter looked at the wind and waves around him and began to sink. Peter cried out to Jesus and Jesus saved him, reaching down and pulling him to safety.

Failure? Perhaps.

Because Peter puts himself in a position to fail, he also puts himself in a position to grow. Failure is indispensable. Failure does not shape you; the way you respond to failure shapes you. After all, if you want to walk on water, you've got to get out of the boat. Set high goals. Strive for what is just out of reach. Dream the impossible. Then do something every day to achieve it. Check your compass more than your calendar.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

How to Pray Constantly

One of my 50th birthday axioms is "pray constantly." But how? Is it really possible? I think it is.

The starting point is to define prayer. In my early days of following Jesus I defined prayer as a specific time, place and posture. Since then I've been through more prayer experiments than I can count.  It was in Seminary that a professor who became a friend transformed my definition. Dr. Steve Harper, in a discussion in his office. In answer to my question about how long one should pray he replied: "Prayer until you meet God."

Up until then prayer had been more about me. Then I started making it about God. When I meet God doesn't necessarily mean I stop praying at that point. It does mean that the connection with God at a deeper level has happened.

Prayer, then, became not about getting an answer,
but about meeting God.

Prayer became, not a way to get what I thought I needed,
but about meeting God who fulfills all my needs.

Prayer became less about a laundry list and more about hearing
from the heart of God to know then what to pray.

This all transformed my life into a life of prayer instead of only moments of prayer. The moments are still important, concentrated, intentional prayer. But the consistent relationship created by constant prayer has increased the transformation of my heart - a transformation I so desperately need. The communion created by constant prayer nourishes an atmosphere of grace and courage to follow God's purpose for my life.

I must confess that it's not been a smooth road, which shouldn't be a surprise. There are more times than I can count when I go through life without that constant prayer. Thankfully, they're less than they used to be, which is an indication that God's working on me still!

In constant prayer God becomes the constant companion. Before this journey began I would often forget God inbetween those moments of prayer. Now His presence guides decisions and guards my heart from moment to moment. Frankly, I've found it easier to make decisions more quickly because life is a more constant prayer.

When prayer becomes less about moments and more about meeting then every conversation becomes a prayer. When I have a conversation with others, treating it like a prayer brings it into the sacred realm. It also guards my tongue! For me it's the practical application of Matthew 18:20…

For where two or three gather in my name,
there I am with them.

This journey started with my conversation at Asbury Seminary. I think a prayer experiment years later took it to a new place. I set a goal of spending an hour in silence with God. Over the course of 30 days I increased the time each day, because the first day and 5 minutes were some of the loudest silence I've ever heard! I can't really describe what it did to my heart but as I look back, it seems the experiment grew my experience of constancy.

I still need dedicated times of prayer but praying constantly means prayer becomes a lifestyle and not just a moment of spiritual achievement, a box to check off. It has taken me more out of my self-centered world and into a God-centered lifestyle. Always? No. Easy? Definitely not. Growing? Yes.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

How to Forgive

Forgiveness is THE key to relationships. The ability to forgive, to not carry a grudge, to not allow bitterness and anger to take root in our lives, this makes the greatest difference in our relationships.

But how?
When you are betrayed, how do you forgive?

When you are hurt by other's choices, how do you let go?

When you get kicked in the gut, perhaps sucker punched,
what do you do with that?

My natural human reaction is to get mad and then get even! There's something that feels good about holding onto a grudge, rehearsing and nursing the painful event. And then I find others who will rally to my point, confirming my suspicion that I was wronged.

Then the reality of the situation sinks in. When I don't forgive….
  • I don't move forward. I'm stuck in a time warp to that moment.
  • I make decisions based on what was done to me rather than what is best for me
  • I don't sleep as well
  • my stress level goes up
  • I have conversations with the perpetrators rather than praying for them
There's a part of each of us that believes if we forgive then we lose something, we give up something. It might feel like letting the other get away with it. If we forgive, will justice be done? If we let them of the hook, will they learn their lesson?

Most of what I've learned about offering forgiveness can be seen in Joseph's story from Genesis 37-50, culminating in what a Seminary professor said was God's "50/20 vision:"
You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.
1. Truth. Forgiveness only happens in an atmosphere of truth. When we forgive it's not in these ways:
  • It's no big deal. Don't worry about it.
  • Nevermind, it's already forgotten. 
  • I know you didn't mean it. Excusing behavior isn't forgiveness.
Deep forgiveness happens when we say: "What you did hurt me." Sweeping things under the rug only creates a pile to trip over at a later date.

2. "But God." The only way I know to transcend the emotional pit of unforgiveness is to fly higher and get the bigger picture - God's picture. "But God" is the strongest, most life-transforming phrase in the Bible. 

Having experienced a sucker punch, a betrayal, and walking beside those experiencing the same, my counsel has been to not wish harm to "the others" but to leave it to God. It's a form of the Gamaliel stance from Acts 5. God might work in this thing. If I get God's perspective then I can seek the benefit of His Kingdom. The other's motivation doesn't matter.

Looking at the people God used gives me pause. There was Jacob the scheming deceiver.  Abraham was a liar and had an impatient character. David is referenced as the greatest King in Israel but carries the baggage of adultery and murder. Peter is viewed as a strong pillar in the new church but his pride nearly took him down. God used those people and they look a lot like me!

Where I struggle is not just "wishing no harm" but actually loving as Jesus calls me to: "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you." I'm still learning to work that out.

3. A Choice. Forgiveness is a decision not an emotion. I have learned over the years to offer forgiveness immediately, realizing that the sting will last longer. Forgiveness is a moment in time choice that has nothing to do with the painful flood of emotion that I feel. I can choose to forgive immediately, then work my way through the maze of emotion.

Forgiveness is a decision between me and my heart.

4. The Cross. Remembering the sacrifice of Jesus is the clincher for forgiveness. His forgiveness of me makes every other action against me pale in comparison.

Garden of Gethsemane, Jerusalem
The words of Jesus ring in my heart with each hurt: "forgive us our sins as we forgive those who have sinned against us." Just that one little preposition to which I'd like to add another "s" in reference to "the others." In that passage known as The Lord's Prayer, we often miss the verses which follow:
For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your Heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins. (vv 14-15)
These are difficult words. If I don't pass on the forgiveness I've received, that forgiveness is replaced by a different relationship. I don't think this is referring to my salvation. It is dealing with my experience of God's forgiveness and its effect on my relationships in life. Unforgiveness will sour in my soul and poison everything and everyone around me. It does put me in grave danger of losing that gift of salvation.

Who do you need to forgive? What wrong has been done to you? What neglect, betrayal or indifference have you experienced? Let it go or it will rule and ruin you. A closed fist can't receive God's grace. An open hand is not only ready to receive but also to pass it on to others. What position will you take?