Learning To Love

A photo by Asaf R. unsplash.com/photos/UalImdHGjGUFor years, I missed the boat when it came to love.  And, no, I’m not talking about my dating life as a younger guy!  I’m talking about the fact that I thought love was a personality trait.  Some people had it, some people didn’t, and there wasn’t much you could do about it.  It was like being an introvert or an extrovert.  Sure, you could learn some techniques to be a little more loving, but it wasn’t like you were going to become a whole new person.

Maybe I struggled because our culture has such a cheap view of love.  We reduce it to nothing more than butterflies in our stomachs, warm fuzzies and something, if I’m being totally honest, that’s very feminine.  It’s all bubbly emotion, all the time.  And I just wasn’t into it. Turns out God has a different definition; read 1 Corinthians 13 for more on what robust, biblical love looks like.

But the more I read the Bible, the more problematic my view of “love as personality trait” became.  Two things became incredibly clear to me:

1. Love is an evidence of salvation.

Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God.  Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.  In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him.

-1 John 4:7-9

All of the sudden, love wasn’t so peripheral any more.  It was essential.  If I didn’t have it, what did that say about my relationship with God?  If I did have a relationship with God, why wasn’t my heart more characterized by love?

To be honest, that didn’t comfort me very much.  In fact, it scared the crud out of me.  I had long seen myself as someone who was low on the love meter.  My heart just wasn’t some warm, bubbling sea of affection for God and others.  It was often cold, indifferent or even hostile.  I realized that what I had always accepted about myself was something God was very intent on changing.

2. Love is a fruit of the Holy Spirit.

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.

Galatians 5:22-23

The Holy Spirit lives in the heart of every Christ follower and He produces love inside of us.  As surely as an apple tree brings forth apples, the Spirit of God brings forth love.  Newsflash: love isn’t a personality trait and it is something we can grow in.  It’s something God produces inside of us.

The more I reflected on God’s love for me in Jesus, the more I found myself loving other people.  In fairness, I still experience love through the lens of my personality.  Love for me is a steady, even keeled commitment to do whatever I can for you.  It doesn’t come out in poetry.  It comes out in prose.  But it does come out.  It’s there and, by God’s grace, it’s growing.

Don’t you dare believe you are condemned to a loveless life.  Jesus died to free you from that, to place His love on you so firmly that you find love rising up from the depths of your heart.  The more you walk with Him, the more you’ll learn to love.

Leadership: Self or God Focused?

self-focused

It’s terrifyingly easy to be a leader with God focused words and a self focused heart.  We know the right things to say: we’re honored and humbled to play even a small part in God’s story; we’re just grateful for the chance to serve; He must increase, we must decrease; etc, etc…  But all too often those platitudes aren’t an expression of our heart.  If anything, they’re a false veneer carefully constructed to hide what we’re really feeling: when will I get the credit I deserve; why hasn’t God given me greater responsibility; why isn’t this easier; how come that joker’s church is growing faster than ours; why wasn’t I invited to speak at that event; etc, etc…  It’s an exhausting place to be.  I know because I’ve been there.

It’s a lonely place where burnout or moral collapse is lurking right around the corner.  But it’s also a place where God does some incredibly deep work in our souls.  It’s the place where we decide whether we’re going to be a God focused or a self-focused leader.  It’s the place where we learn the value of keeping our heart focused on God and shaped by the gospel.  It’s the place where we resolve not to spend the rest of our lives parroting someone else’s words but rather live out of the overflow of what God is doing in our own hearts.

Whenever I see myself sliding back into self-focused leadership, I think about Ezekiel.  He got a master class in God focused leadership early in his ministry.  Through him, we see what a God focused leader looks like:

 

 1. God Focused Leadership Starts With A Call From God

Ezekiel never had to wonder why he got into this whole leadership thing in the first place.  The answer was incredibly clear:

Ezekiel 1:3 – the word of the Lord came to Ezekiel the priest, the son of Buzi, in the land of the Chaldeans by the Chebar canal, and the hand of the Lord was upon him there.

Do you have that kind of clarity?  That’s not just a question for pastors and elders but for Community Group leaders and ministry team leaders as well.  What got you started?  Did God prompt you to do this or did someone else talk you into it?  Were you following Jesus or just trying to make a name for yourself?  Were you more captivated by the gospel or the thrill of being in charge?

2. God Focused Leadership Is Sustained By Awe 

God focused leaders know the key to staying in the game is awe of God and His Word. We see both in Ezekiel:

Ezekiel 1:28(b) – Such was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord. And when I saw it, I fell on my face, and I heard the voice of one speaking.

Ezekiel 3:15 – And I came to the exiles at Tel-abib, who were dwelling by the Chebar canal, and I sat where they were dwelling. And I sat there overwhelmed among them seven days.

Ezekiel wasn’t bored by God.  He was overwhelmed and on his face, sometimes literally.  God’s Word only intensified that awe:

Ezekiel 3:1-3 – And he said to me, “Son of man, eat whatever you find here. Eat this scroll, and go, speak to the house of Israel.”  So I opened my mouth, and he gave me this scroll to eat.  And he said to me, “Son of man, feed your belly with this scroll that I give you and fill your stomach with it.” Then I ate it, and it was in my mouth as sweet as honey.

Ezekiel 3:10 – Moreover, he said to me, “Son of man, all my words that I shall speak to you receive in your heart, and hear with your ears.

Leadership that isn’t sustained by awe is usually sustained by duty or desperation.  Duty says I don’t dare quit.  Desperation says I can’t possibly quit.  Maybe it’s a fear of letting people down.  Maybe it’s the fear of no longer getting a paycheck.  Maybe it’s the fear that no one will pay any attention to you if you aren’t leading.  Maybe leadership has become pure muscle memory – you don’t even know what you would do if you weren’t leading. None of that leads to ministry vitality or personal flourishing.

Keeping our hearts focused on God and shaped by the gospel is our highest priority as leaders.  It’s more important than the work we do, the roles we play or the responsibilities we have.  A neglected soul will be the biggest threat to your leadership.

3.  God Focused Leadership Endures Difficulty

Ezekiel’s ministry was not an unbroken string of pain-free success:

Ezekiel 2:5-6 – And whether they hear or refuse to hear (for they are a rebellious house) they will know that a prophet has been among them. And you, son of man, be not afraid of them, nor be afraid of their words, though briers and thorns are with you and you sit on scorpions. Be not afraid of their words, nor be dismayed at their looks, for they are a rebellious house.

Ezekiel 3:7 – But the house of Israel will not be willing to listen to you, for they are not willing to listen to me: because all the house of Israel have a hard forehead and a stubborn heart.

If Ezekiel had been driven by man’s approval, he would have quit early on.  If all he wanted to do was make a name for himself, he would have been out.  If he was in it until it got hard, he wouldn’t have even gotten started.  But he keeps going – staying obedience to God’s call on his life and sustained by awe.

In a world of self focused leaders, I’m praying God will raise up a new generation of God focused leaders in His church.  Leaders who will shape culture, lift communities and transform lives for the glory of Christ and the good of their cities. It’s possible.  We just need to stop focusing on ourselves and start focusing on God.

Thirsting Souls

stillnessAs a deer pants for flowing streams,
    so pants my soul for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God,
    for the living God.
When shall I come and appear before God?

(Psalm 42:1-2)

It’s not hard to recognize the thirst of our souls.  It shows up in our longing to love and be loved.  It shows up in a nagging discontent that reminds us that we were made for more.  It shows up in a desire to live free of the sin that robs our joy.  When we wonder if we even matter, that’s thirst.  When we wonder if it’s all worth it, that’s thirst.  So much of the story of our lives can be told through the thirst of our souls.

It’s not wrong to thirst.  It is, in fact, inevitable.  But we get ourselves in trouble when we try to satisfy legitimate thirsts in damaging ways.  It’s not wrong to feel lonely but wasting two hours on Facebook isn’t going to satisfy the thirst for relationships.  It’s not wrong to be discouraged but there’s no happy hour long enough to address the root causes.  It’s not wrong to ache for meaning but it’s crazy to think a nicer apartment is going to satisfy our souls.

God built thirst into our souls so we would seek Him.  He did it so we would never forget we were made to live in relationship with Him.  He did it so we couldn’t get very far without missing the One who made us.

All of this is so simple.  Satisfy the thirst of our souls with God, not substitutes.  Don’t feed our souls garbage when they long for divinity.  The hard part is remembering it in the moment.  So, at some point today, you’re going to feel thirsty – run to God, not a substitute.  It’s that simple.  But it’ll be the difference between having your thirst satisfied and having your thirst intensified.

Intentional In The Ordinary

Clock

We all want to live an extraordinary life.  I know I do and I know there is nothing wrong with that.  In fact, I’m certain that longing deep inside each of our souls is part of God’s fingerprints on our lives.  He’s the One who put that yearning deep inside each one of us – to make life count, to do significant things, to rise above pointless mediocrity.

But a lot of times we go about it all wrong.  We dream about the heroic moments.  The major decision.  The captivating sermon.  The bold new initiative.  The defining conversation.  While there’s nothing wrong with those things and I do believe we’ll each face a few of those moments in our lives, it’s the wrong focus.

Most of our lives are very ordinary.  Get up, spend time with God, workout, go to work, come home, put the kids to bed, pass out in exhaustion.  And repeat the next day.  Meetings, travel, commutes, groceries, phone calls, emails, trips to the dentist, and reports.  It all stacks up and it all feels so dull.  So boring.  So ordinary.

But I’m convinced that the secret to an extraordinary life is being intentional in the ordinary.  It’s the decision not to coast through Tuesday.  It’s the decision to be fully present, to work as unto the Lord, to love with our whole heart and to give it all we’ve got.  No one’s going to ask you to make the heroic decision if you duck the ordinary ones.  You’ll never be asked to lead until you figure out how to follow.  Nobody’s ever said, “Hey, that guy never takes on any added responsibility, let’s put him in charge of the new initiative.”  Extraordinary moments seem to find those who are intentional in the ordinary.

Be bold.  Be courageous.  Be intentional.  Not tomorrow.  But today.  In the sea of meetings, tasks and texts.  Be intentional.  Move the ball forward.  Do your best.  Lean into the power God offers.

Don’t stop reaching but do stop neglecting what’s right in front of you.

Faithful

Fog Bridge

If I had to reduce the past few weeks to one thought, it would be this:  God is faithful. As basic as that is, we forget it way more than we should (or at least I do!).  Yes, the Scriptures tell the story of God’s faithfulness over and over and over.  Consider just a few verses:

  • Know therefore that the Lord your God is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations, (Deuteronomy 7:9)
  • O Lord God of hosts, who is mighty as you are, O Lord, with your faithfulness all around you? (Psalm 89:8)
  • God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. (1 Corinthians 1:9)

But when life is hard or uncertain, we can loose sight of God’s faithfulness in the fog of our own doubts.  Bills pile up, deadlines go unmet, relationships produce more pain that joy and the stresses of daily life seem like more than we can handle.  The fog thickens.  We wonder where God is.  We wonder if we’re fools for believing.

And then the rays of God’s faithfulness start to burn off the fog.  Hope emerges.  We see hints of life, of movement, of purpose.  We see tangible reminders that God is with us and has been moving this whole time.  By God’s grace, we’re in one of those seasons as a church.  In just the past couple of weeks, we’ve seen God:

  • Establish a Community Group on GW’s campus.
  • Open a door for us to send a team to Nicaragua this summer.
  • Lead us to offer a summer internship for college students.
  • Deepen our understanding of generosity.

Friends, God is moving.  He’s demonstrating His power and His passion for His own glory.  He’s the faithful One.  He’s the One who gets all of the glory and all of the credit.  We’re the ones who get to celebrate and thank Him.

I will also praise you with the harp for your faithfulness, O my God; I will sing praises to you with the lyre, O Holy One of Israel. (Psalm 72:21)

This psalm reflects where we need to line up as a church and as individuals.  Whether the fog of doubt is rolling in or burning off, God is faithful.  So, take some time to thank God for the faithfulness you are seeing in your life.  Or take time to thank Him for the faithfulness you know is there under the fog.  Either way, He’s still faithful.

Bible Reading Traps

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This may seem like a strange follow-up to my last post encouraging you to follow an annual Bible reading plan in 2016.  But if you go charging into an annual Bible reading plan without a little warning, there’s an excellent chance you’ll fall into at least one of the following traps:

Trap #1: Accomplishing, Not Connecting

The more achievement oriented you are, the more likely you’ll plunge headlong into this trap.  It’s the trap that develops when reaching your daily reading goal becomes far more important than connecting with the God who breathed the Scripture to life.  It’s so easy to turn Bible reading into a box you check rather than an encounter with God.  The goal isn’t to get your eyes over the page, it’s to get the Word into your heart.  As my friend J.D. Greear often says, “the verse must become a voice.”

If a Bible reading plan ensures that you are constantly sitting under the voice of Your Creator, it’s a win.  But if it’s nothing more than an obligation, it’s setting the stage for an even more dangerous trap.

Trap #2: Earning, Not Receiving

This is the most dangerous trap because it’s the one that causes us to forget the gospel.  Somehow our self-righteous, achievement oriented flesh starts to believe God should reward us for our new commitment to reading the Bible.  I’m not talking about the rewards of knowing Christ more, gaining wisdom and increased reverence for God.  I’m talking about the line of thinking that goes, “God, I’ve been so good about reading the Bible that You really need to help me get that promotion.”  Or fill in your own ending.  This way of thinking turns God into an emotionally insecure author who you can manipulate simply by paying attention to his book.

If a Bible reading plan ensures that you are constantly dazzled by the story of God’s grace, then it’s a win.  But if it’s just your attempt to put God in your debt, it’ll only frustrate you and cause your heart to grow colder.

Trap #3:  Reading, Not Doing

Reading the Bible is wonderful.  Obeying it is even better.  That’s what James is driving at when he writes, “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.“(James 1:21)  It’s not just about reading to increase our knowledge.  It’s about increased knowledge producing increased affection which produces increased mission.  If all of your reading isn’t leading to any doing, you’re perpetuating a fraud on yourself.

If a Bible reading plan ensures that you are systematically examining your heart to bring it into alignment with the character of Jesus, it’s a win.  If it’s just about helping you have a few more verses at your disposal for theological arguments, then you’re missing the whole point.

Friends, I really believe in the power of organized Bible reading plans.  I still want you to pick a plan and a partner today or tomorrow.  Just go into it aware of the traps.  If you avoid them, you’ll have a life shaping 2016.

Crash Diet Spirituality

Crash Diet Spirituality

We all know crash diets don’t work.  But we can be so tempted by the possibility of quick results that we just can’t help ourselves every now and again.  Or maybe it’s desperation that drives us into a frenzied season of carb-free, extended sessions on the treadmill.  Initially, it seems like everything’s working as planned – pounds come off, energy levels increase and clothes fit better.

Then some friends invite you to join them at the hot new pizza place in town.  You spend the whole drive there meditating on, “I’m only getting a salad.”  But six slices of pizza later you decide to skip the gym for the evening.  Then the following day is busy and you grab a venti sugar laden something.  By the end of the week, you’ve gained a pound.  It’s depressing.

Especially when we do the same thing spiritually.

After a season of sin, despair or distance from God, we resolve to get our act together spiritually.  We start making vows, promises and commitments: wake up at 4am, pray for three hours, listen to a podcast a day, never miss church, lead one person a day to the Lord and go on the next mission trip offered.  We permanently renounce lust, pride, anger, bitterness, fear and greed.  We even vow to start making our bed and keeping up with the laundry – all part of the new and improved version of ourselves.

And then we fall.  And start the cycle again.

Don’t get me wrong – repentance is a good thing.(Ps. 51)  It’s a neglected thing in the church.  In some ways, we’ve gotten so good at pivoting to the grace of the gospel that we fail to take stock of the horror of our sin.  There’s everything right with seeing how far we’ve fallen and turning back to the Father who loves us.

But the journey to spiritual health is a long and winding road.  It’s going to take sustained energy, resilience in the face of setbacks and patience with ourselves.  Becoming more like Jesus is a marathon, not a sprit.  The path to spiritual health is one of small daily decisions repeated for weeks, months and years.

Please don’t misunderstand me – this isn’t an invitation to complacency.  Fight sin.  Embrace Jesus.  Read the Bible.  Pray.  Serve.  But fight for the long term transformation over the short term mirage.

Long term transformation comes through the constant renewing of our minds in Scripture (Romans 12:2) and increasing reliance on the Spirit of God.  You’ll know you’re on the path to a healthy, sustainable relationship with Jesus when the road ahead is both beautiful and intimidating. When we see all that Jesus is inviting us into, we want to follow Him.  At the same time, we realize we’re totally inadequate for all He’s leading us into.  We need His grace, His power, His Spirit to carry us.

Real health and lasting change comes in that moment of awe inspired surrender.  Don’t look for shortcuts around that moment.  Embrace it and allow Jesus to meet you there.