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The Miracle of Christmas

Photo by Walter Chávez on Unsplash

As we prepare for Christmas amidst the cacophony of Christmas parties, decorations, Black Friday, Cyber Monday, all in the name of “getting ready for the holidays,’ let’s not forget the simple, powerful story of a poor young woman and her example of radical faith and obedience to God.

In the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.

And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” 

But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.

The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom, there will be no end.”

Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” 

The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren.

For nothing will be impossible with God.”

Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her. Luke 1:26-38

The real message of Christmas
The message of Christianity is not a message of humanity’s ability to find God, or reach God. The message of Christianity is that God finds us. God found Mary. God’s initiative, not ours.

Prayer: God in heaven, once again I’m struck with your awesome power today. Not only did you create all things, but you sustain them right up to the present moment. My next breath and next heartbeat depend on you. Not only that, my most difficult problems disappear when you act. Nothing is impossible with you. May I live today with that belief firmly in mind. In Jesus’ Name. Amen.

Why we make excuses and what to do about them

Hiking near the mountains of desert canyons in UtahPhoto by Holly Mandarich on Unsplash

So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt (Exodus 2:10).

As much as Moses was a great leader, he was far from a perfect leader. He did something many of us do when intimidated by a task–make excuses. Why do we make excuses?

We make excuses…

  1. To avoid being responsible for the task.
  2. To delay and procrastinate.
  3. To mask the growing fear inside of us
  4. To save ourselves from the perceived pain and shame of failure. 

It is possible these were some of the reasons Moses offered excuses to God. He did not feel adequate. The magnitude of the task seemed greater than his abilities. Have you ever felt that way?

The truth is, no one is ever adequate for the task of leading God’s people. Adequacy for leadership comes through time spent in God’s presence and through a process of trial and error. So it is understandable at the outset that Moses would question his ability to lead–hence his excuses.

I know this sounds weird, but it is a good thing to lose confidence in one’s abilities but gain confidence in God’s ability to work through us.

The messages of our culture invite us to think positive, invoke powerful mantras, “I am somebody! I am strong. I am a leader. I am smart, creative, today is the best day of my life,” and other such banal platitudes. Unfortunately, such practices turn the spotlight on the leader and fail to recognize the frailty inherent in every leader. Moses had no mantras that day. He was halting, uncertain and filled with excuses. What were some of his excuses?

First Excuse: “No one will believe me that you and I met in the desert.” Then Moses answered, “But behold, they will not believe me or listen to my voice, for they will say, ‘The LORD did not appear to you.” (Exodus 4:1 ESV)

Second Excuse: Lord, remember that I have a speech impediment. I no longer speak with any fluency. Moses said to the LORD, “Oh, my Lord, I am not eloquent, either in the past or since you have spoken to your servant, but I am slow of speech and of tongue.”
(Exodus 4:10 ESV)

Third excuse: I am busy, send someone else. But he said, “Oh, my Lord, please send someone else.” (Exodus 4:13 ESV)

What to do
Feelings of inadequacy are natural. 
The burning bush encounter with God is an important event for fear-filled Moses. For Moses, the feelings would dissipate as he grew stronger through intimate times with God. From this day forward, Moses would walk with God and filter every challenge, every victory and every decision through his friendship with God.

Excuses lose their power over us when we remember this truth:

If God calls us to a task, he will empower us to do the task.

What are some of the common excuses you tend to make?

Why leaders need transcendent moments

Kyaking

 

Do you ever wonder why Jesus’ favorite recreational activity was to go either to a deserted place or to the mountains?

Leaders need times of solitude. We need transcendent moments to remind us that our problems and challenges are not bigger than God.

This truth came home to me a few years ago. Former members of our church invited our family to spend a day at their home located near a breathtaking lake.

I was in the middle of a very stressful time in the church—many meetings, staff conflicts, budget deficits, personal pressures.

My wife was convinced we should go, but I wanted to stay home and have my private pity party.

She pushed. We accepted the invitation and traveled the fifty-five miles to see our friends. Was I glad I took their offer!

Their spacious home was situated on close to an acre of land next to a large lake. Entering the area where they lived was like stepping into a soundproof zone.

We no longer heard the white noise of the highway; all we heard were birds singing to their Maker, the gentle wind pushing and pulling the leaves on the trees.

After lunch, our hosts took us down to the lake and showed us how to kayak. I had never done this before, but after a few missteps, I began to understand the rhythm of kayaking. I learned how to efficiently move my paddle from side to side; moving forward, backward, turning.

What initially felt like a chore quickly became delight. I confidently pushed out into the middle of the lake, and it was only when I was in the middle of the lake that I realized the enormity of this body of water.

Way back on shore I could see my family, they were waving and calling out to me, but I was so far from them I could not hear a single word. And then I stopped rowing and quietly sat in the middle of the lake.

This is a moment I will never forget. In the middle of the vast lake, I felt small, insignificant, and my worries seemed small. I realized at that moment my problems, my concerns, fears, and desires were as nothing in the middle of this enormous body of water.

My thoughts turned to Christ and his power to walk on water; his authority to speak to the wind and the waves roiling and threatening his disciples on the Sea of Galilee. His fearful disciples were convinced death was imminent, so they shook him from his peaceful sleep.

Lord, do you not care that we perish? Jesus first said to them? Why are you afraid? O you of little faith. Then he stood up and spoke to the wind and the waves and it became still. (See Matthew 8: 23-27)

Thankfully, I was not in a literal storm that day. The lake was like a plate of glass except for a few slight undulating waves. But my inner life was in turmoil, and I knew at that moment Christ was not just with me, and that everything would be fine, but Christ was greater than all the storms I was facing and I did not need to be captured by fear.

At that moment my giant sized challenges were eclipsed by the magnitude of the lake. The chaos of my inner life was recalibrated from feverish, fretful pursuits, to peace, stillness, rest, faith, and renewal in the presence and power of God.

I hope you have a place where you go and experience God. I hope you have a place where you can resize your challenges before the greatness of God. Failure to find these transcendent moments leave us thinking it’s all up to us. It never is.

Where do you go to reset your inner life?

Dead Leader Walking

tired-working-man-sleeping-at-the-workplace-full-of-work_1150-1825

A costly error

I recently read some of the saddest words ever said about a leader:

So Saul died for his unfaithfulness; he was unfaithful to the Lord in that he did not keep the command of the Lord; moreover, he had consulted a medium, seeking guidance, and did not seek guidance from the Lord. Therefore the Lord put him to death and turned the kingdom over to David, son of Jesse. (1 Chronicles 10:13-14 NRSV).

What do I find so disturbing about these words? Not that Saul died (this is tragic), or the way he died, but that he did not seek guidance from the Lord.

Saul was anointed and appointed by God. He had all the right leadership tools, except one: humility in seeking the Lord with all his heart.

As his leadership started unraveling, he began losing confidence and broad support from his trusted leaders and the people of Israel.

He became a “dead leader” walking–willing to do anything to solve his problems. Anything but seek the Lord.

Instead, he went to a medium and in desperation, tried contacting the spirit of Samuel.

Like a dehydrated person in a desert craving a drop of water, Saul was yearning for wisdom, direction, and help. The weight of leadership was crushing him. If you are a leader, you know what this feels like. 

Jealousy toward David, his son-in-law, was slowly building a prison in his heart and this was when he took a foolish shortcut, and it cost him everything.

Leaders, remember that nothing of eternal significance happens apart from God.

Jesus was unequivocal when he said, “Apart from me you can do nothing (John 15:5). The task of leading an organization is challenging.

Leaders who have nothing to rely on but their degrees, their raw, brute strength to carry the load, will inevitably hit a wall and fall apart. They will not endure over the long haul that is often required of those who lead. Most of all, they will not finish well.

Source of the problem
Many leaders struggle in their prayer lives. They trade the short term comfort of immediate results for the longterm gain of seeking God’s best. Prayerless leaders are more common than we care to admit because prayer is slow, humbling, hard work. 

Those who pray, feel like it is a waste of time. Like Smeagol, in Lord of the Rings– the creature with the obsession for the shiny ring–many leaders are smitten with shiny leadership tools that they think will spur growth within their organization, their church, motivate people, and raise vast sums of money. Leaders want results. I get that!

I am not trying to dismiss leadership resources. I am saying that we must wisely choose our tools. Speaking through Jeremiah, the Lord said, “Stand at the crossroads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way lies; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls.” (Jeremiah 6: 16).

Come back to the ancient crossroads. Seek for the ancient paths–spiritual leadership that is centered on devotion to God. And in doing this, leaders will discover that God’s power is greater than anything they can do in their strength and that the wisdom of God and the plans of God are often revealed through prayer.

Remember…

Malcolm Gladwell (Outliers: The Story of Success) points out that virtually every person who has achieved success has done so, not only because of their talent, intelligence and hard work, but also because of an incredible set of circumstances that has given them advantages others have not enjoyed. Most studies on the traits of effective leadership include the attribute of humility—from Kouzes and Posner to Jim Collins; from Lencioni to Covey to Drucker. All of them recognize what Einstein taught: we are but a speck in an unfathomably large universe. Every leader who seeks a legacy of effectiveness realizes that he or she stands on the shoulders of someone else. They know that their abilities, opportunities and even their very breath come from the hand of God. William Loritts (Leadership as an Identity: The Four Traits of Those Who Wield Lasting Influence) writes, “For a Christian leader, brokenness is a dear friend, and pride is the enemy.” Leaders who would be grateful, humble and broken must begin on their knees, thanking God for his grace and mercy in their lives. (From Do Leaders Really Need To Pray?: The Role of Prayer in Leadership)

What are you doing to maintain spiritual vibrancy in your leadership?

What I am reading this week

Book imageI sometimes get questions from folks about my reading and study habits. In a word, I read widely because this world is a massive community, filled with teachers from many different perspectives.

Scripture

I often begin my day reading and meditating on a portion of Scripture. For more years than I can count, I take about 20 minutes of each 365 days to ponder the Scriptures. Between my ESV Bible and YouVersion, I rouse myself from lethargy and pursue God through Scripture for these reasons:

“How can a young man keep his way pure? By guarding it according to your word. With my whole heart I seek you; let me not wander from your commandments! I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you.” Psalms 119:9-11

The Power of Habit
Had a great time re-reading Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit. Judith and I gave a short talk about habits and how they shape us. Your habits are either making you or breaking you. If you are serious about change, not only read this book but be transparents with a few good folks who can help you seek new ways to live.

Lecrae
If you have never heard of the rapper Lecrae, check out his music. His new album, All Things Work Together, talks about how he handled the pain and rejection from his mostly white Christian fans for speaking up about the racism and white supremacy. I listened to his album about two or three times this week.

Bondage of the Will
I am writing a paper for the publication, Theology Matters. My article will focus on Luther’s book Bondage of the Will. Pray for me that I will meet this writing deadline before November 30.

Mission Drift
Just started listening to an audio version of Mission Drift: The Unspoken Crisis Facing Leaders, Charities, and Churches by Chris Horst and Peter Greer(good summary here if you don’t have time to read the book). This book is helping me understand how people and organizations drift from their core beliefs and practices. I will tell you more when I complete the book.

Happy reading!

 

 

What I am reading this week

I continue to believe the maxim that if we are to lead well, we must read well. In fact, I read with keen interest in Harvard Business Review the sad decline of reading in America and around the world.

Note how many business titans are or have been avid readers. According to The New York Times, Steve Jobs had an “inexhaustible interest” in William Blake; Nike founder Phil Knight so reveres his library that in it you have to take off your shoes and bow; and Harman Industries founder Sidney Harman called poets “the original systems thinkers,” quoting freely from Shakespeare and Tennyson. In Passion & Purpose, David Gergen notes that Carlyle Group founder David Rubenstein reads dozens of books each week. And history is littered not only with great leaders who were avid readers and writers (remember, Winston Churchill won his Nobel prize in Literature, not Peace), but with business leaders who believed that deep, broad reading cultivated in them the knowledge, habits, and talents to improve their organizations.

Whenever I meet with a couple for premarital counseling, one of the first questions I ask is, “What have you been reading lately about marriage?” What do you think most of these couples said to me? Nothing.

Reading is critical to spiritual, intellectual, spiritual and emotional growth. If you are a writer, you must be a reader.

Here are a few things I am reading these days:

5 Disciplines of a Growing Marriage
My wife and I wrote this book, and we highly recommend it to seasoned couples, to new couples, even singles who are thinking about getting married.

The Meaning of Marriage
An excellent book, written by Pastor Tim Keller and his wife, Kathy.

The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work
Though not written from a Christian perspective, this book by John Gottman is loaded with powerful insights for couples who desire to have a flourishing marriage.

I would also encourage you to read the bible. I tell couples that many if not all the books written about marriage find their ideas from Scripture. Read well, if you want to lead well

So what you are you reading this week? Share your comments below.

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Three Powerful Words

Forgivness

More than I care to admit, I often find myself in a state of conflict with my wife over something that I did, or she did.

Depending on what’s going on, sometimes the problem quickly dissipates, and we thankfully move on. But there are moments when we get stuck. Being stuck in ongoing conflict is draining and unhealthy.

We frequently remind ourselves that our marriage is a relationship between two imperfect people and a perfect God. Even at our best, we are weak, sinful and broken. There will be times when negative and less than desirable attitudes surface, resentments harden, and the once loving and excited couple becomes disillusioned, even wondering, why did we get married?

If this is where you are in your relationship, let me encourage you to use three powerful words to nudge your relationship toward a healthier place.

Please Forgive Me

These words travel in three directions.

Inward
First, these words say something about the condition of your heart. You are ready to lay down your weapons of pride, defensiveness, and hardness of heart.

It says that you are repentant, humble and willing to do whatever it takes to change you. You are no longer looking at the other person and what they are saying, how they are behaving, or reacting. You are taking responsibility for you; you recognize your need for personal change.

Outward
Second, these words say something about your attitude toward the other person.

When a marriage is in trouble, the marital pain is never one-sided. Saying I am sorry is recognizing that you played a part in the problems in your home.

You are acknowledging that it doesn’t matter who is right or wrong. You are more concerned about how the other person is feeling.

Upward
When you say, please forgive me, it is also a prayer to the Lord of your marriage. You have not only sinned against your spouse by what you have done and left undone, but you have also sinned against your God.

Good news
The gospel tells us that we are sinners, but through Christ, God has done something about the sins, the weaknesses and the flaws that impact our lives. Ephesians. 4:32: God in Christ has forgiven us; Christ loves us. Christ gave himself up for us as a sacrifice for our sins.

By focusing on the gospel, you discover a source of power, strength, energy, hope, resolve to be a different person.

You are able to imitate God. God gives you the power to live a life of love; God gives you the ability to be kind, tenderhearted, forgiving toward the other person.

Through the gospel, you discover a new willingness to sacrifice, give up your right for the sake of the other person. This act of giving up oneself for the benefit of the other is the heart of the gospel.

Paul applies this giving up of oneself to husbands: Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her. The model for love is based on the gospel of Jesus who loves us and gave himself up for us.

Let’s say it another way: saying “please forgive me,” being kind and tenderhearted, forgiving, are byproducts of Jesus at work in our hearts.

The Holy Spirit’s ministry is to take truths about Jesus and make them clear to our minds and real to our hearts—so real that they console and empower and change us at our very center.

What other strategies do you use to resolve conflict in your relationship?

Check out our newest resource to encourage you in your marriage!
5 Disciplines for a growing marriage: Falling in Love Again.

Ordering Your Private World

Integrity

For me, Ordering Your Private World (OYPW) is one of the best books I have read in the last thirty-years on what it means to live with integrity, authenticity, and openness to the Spirit of God, as a father, husband, pastor and human being.

Warning: Do not read this book if you prefer to live unruffled at the level of mediocrity. OYPW shatters our propensity to live with private and public selves. We spend time propping up the public self for many reasons: it’s good for business; we can create a persona that makes people shower us with accolades, or deep down we are afraid of what people might think if they actually saw us from the inside out.

This explains why many of us ignore the private world—that uncharted region of the soul that no one actually sees—that we don’t even know, except for our Creator. But the Lord said to Samuel, “Don’t judge by his appearance or height, for I have rejected him. The Lord doesn’t see things the way you see them. People judge by outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” I Samuel 16:7.

Not long ago a young woman told me how surprised she was at the many fans and followers who loved and adored her much-acclaimed father. She later remarked, “I don’t understand why they love him so; he’s a different person at home.”

OYPW helps the reader integrate these often-divergent worlds so that the follower of Christ might be “holy,” in the real and complete sense of the word.

Do not read this book if you are afraid of being challenged in several key areas of your life.

•I’m living at too fast a speed.
•I am awash in too many choices, and I’m not good at saying no.
•I’m overwhelmed by the complexities of my organization.
•I compare myself to other people…and I always feel like I lose.
•I think that technology and talent can solve my problems, but they can’t.
•I am tempted to think that all I have to do is preach to people and they come around.
•I have not expected the force of the anti-faith culture I’m living in.
•I am not seeking times of deep reverence, prayer, in the presence of Jesus.
•I fritter away my time on things that do not matter in the eyes of God.
•I live with self-pity instead of dwelling in the full and rich grace of God.
•I want to stop living with secrets, lies, and fears.

But do read this book if you are interested in growing in grace and in the knowledge of Christ.

Do read this book if you are ready to live a life with significance and steward the time you have on this earth.

If you are a pastor, parent, man, woman, teenager, believer, unbeliever, or just a person seeking to harness your gifts, your time, your energy in full-hearted devotion to Christ, then this is the book to read or in some cases, re-read.

What’s your greatest challenge in ordering your inner private life with your outer public life?

3 Strategies For Saving Your Marriage

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5 Disciplines small groupOur Books

Marriage is both the sweetest and the toughest experience a couple will ever undertake. When a marriage is in a sweet, harmonious spot, and things are working according to plan, it is a beautiful thing to see.
But when that same marriage stumbles or the couple lose their way, there is nothing more painful than watching a marriage implode.

In this post, I want to share three strategies that will help you rescue your marriage from misery and possibly even divorce.
During our thirty-four years of marriage and counting, Judith and I have had our highs and lows. But very early in our relationship, we embraced a few life-giving strategies.

Reconnect with God

Problems in a marriage belie not just a failure to communicate or other psychological problems between two people, but a spiritual problem with God. If you are trapped in the cycle of never-ending conflict remember this core idea:
For those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen (I John 4:20).

In other words, it is rather hypocritical for me to claim that I love this God whom I have never seen, but then show utter contempt for the woman who sleeps on the bed next to me.

Reach out to a believing community
Despite the heavy usage of social media as a form of connection and friendship, people are lonely. Couples are afraid to open up and share their struggles out of fear of rejection and shame. Our hyper-individualized culture makes us think that we can make it on our own. The result is some couples find themselves isolated and overwhelmed by life. Fearing rejection and shame, they have little support or advocates who challenge and speak into their lives. Consider forming a 5 Disciplines small group (check here for resources on forming a group) for intentional sharing, support, and change. And then find a local church and begin forming friendships with other couples. In our church in Evanston, we have a Building Strong Relationships class designed to encourage couples at all stages.

Revisit your vows
If possible, go back to the day of your wedding and try to remember what you felt on that day. Try to remember not just the bells and whistles, the beautiful clothing, food, and music, but try to remember your vows. May you said the following:

“I, [name], take you [name], to be my [husband/wife], to have and to hold from this day forward, for better or for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish; from this day forward until death do us part.

You didn’t commit to something that was easy. Your vows predicted that tough and painful times would come, but you promised to stay faithful to each other. Strength comes through pain and struggle. Ask the Lord to help you remain faithful to your spouse.

Question: What are you doing to sustain a strong marriage?