Clutter and The Distraction of the Rear View Mirror

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I feel like I’m a “selective hoarder.” I don’t think you’d look at either our home or my study at church and think I’ve got way too much stuff—except for the rows and rows and rows of books and the stacks and files and stacks and files of articles from newspapers, magazine, profession journals, newsletters and my own notebooks of ideas. It’s pretty overwhelming. Because my ministry of communication relies on ideas, I have accumulated many resources I call “You-never-know-when’s:” you just never know when that book, article, note, or file will come in handy!

But I recently experienced the burden of clutter I hadn’t felt before. I didn’t see it coming.

Our church campus has recently gone through a building program. We’ve also been upgrading many buildings, including the one where my study is (I don’t call it an office). Everything had to be removed. Everything. So that started the process of evaluating what to keep, what to give away, and what to throw away.

In the process, I began going through my past “day-books.” These notebooks contain daily notes on appointments, to do lists, meeting notes, phones messages and so on.

Reading through the days’ notes from several years ago was like re-living the day in detail. While that was fascinating, it was also overwhelming. The responsibilities and burdens and feelings of each day rose up within me, as if they were happening right now.

After this experience I came across this passage in the writings of Fenelon (the French spiritual director from the court of King Louis XIV):

“The wise and diligent traveler watches his every step, and always has his eyes upon the part of the road directly in front of him. But he does not turn constantly backward to count every step, and to examine every track. He would lose time in going forward.”

It’s dangerous to drive with your focus on the rear view mirror. I now see more clearly what Jesus meant when he said, “Let the day’s own trouble be sufficient for the day” (Matthew 6:34). My energy drained away as I went back over the notes in my day-books. I realized at that moment that I had to – in the words of Elsa—“Let it go!” (with apologies to Disney!).

I need all my energy for today. For right now. I made a bold (for me!) decision: I shredded all those day-books. And it feels good—mostly. (Gotta’ be honest—change is not comfortable!)

“But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13-14).

Getting rid of yesterday’s clutter makes room for today.

Oh, I still collect stuff—and I’ll go through the-sort-and-throw-out-stuff process for years to come. But I’m more aware of the need to set a wiser standard for what I keep. Live now. Focus on what is needed now. Trust God for tomorrow’s ideas.

The Paradox of Power

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Eugene was a big man who towered over me. He put one hand on my left shoulder, one on my right, looked me straight in the eye and said in a resonant voice that was heard throughout the room, “In my country, when they make you a king, they make you a slave.”

I had just been installed as senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church, Fairfield, Connecticut, and was at the reception following the service. In that congregation there was a wonderful extended family from Ghana in West Africa. Eugene was “head” of the family. He was a former officer in the Ghanaian army, and still stood straight and had a commanding presence.

His words echoed in my ears and went straight to my heart, “In my country, when they make you a king, they make you a slave.” Eugene continued his loving exhortation by saying that people need a leader who protects, provides and cares for them. “The good leader knows,” he said, “that the welfare of the people means his own security and well-being, too.”

I imagine you may find it a bit jarring to compare a pastor to a king, or hear an African speak openly about slavery. But Eugene’s point is clearly consistent with Jesus’ message. In John 13, just hours before his betrayal, trial and crucifixion, Jesus showed his disciples the way of power in God’s Kingdom.

After washing their feet, he put on his robe again and sat down and asked, “Do you understand what I was doing? You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and you are right, because that’s what I am. And since I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash each other’s feet. I have given you an example to follow. Do as I have done to you. I tell you the truth, slaves are not greater than their master. Nor is the messenger more important than the one who sends the message. Now that you know these things, God will bless you for doing them” (John 13:12-17 New Living Translation).

Leaders need to understand the nature of power. Power is framed differently in God’s Kingdom as opposed to the world. In the world, power is a sign of prestige; in God’s Kingdom, power is vested in servants. In the world, power is a tool for self-gratification; in God’s Kingdom, power is a means to show love. In the world, power is often exercised through personal intimidation; in God’s Kingdom, power is dying to self.

A number of years ago, I developed the book TouchPoints for Leaders as part of the Tyndale House Publishers TouchPoints  series. It contains over 150 topics with Scriptures and comments I wrote applicable to leadership issues. Don’t let that word ‘leader’ throw you if you think, “I’m not a leader.” Leaders are, most simply, people with influence. This influence can be formal (like a teacher or a coach) or, more likely, informal (as in the influence you have with friends, colleagues, and family members). Here’s what I wrote as one of the entries under “Power:”

Leaders have the ability to influence others, to mobilize resources, and to get the attention of significant people or groups of people in society. They can make things happen– or keep things from happening. In short, they have power to control. This is the most seductive aspect of leadership– but is also at the heart of effectiveness. Ultimately, however, leaders in all walks of life are dependent on God’s power.

Many passages in Scripture remind us that us we are stewards, not originators, of power.

“…’It is not by force nor by strength, but by my Spirit,’ says the LORD Almighty” (Zechariah 4:6 NLT).

“…He [the Lord] did it so you would never think that it was your own strength and energy that made you wealthy. Always remember that it is the LORD your God who gives you power to become rich” (Deuteronomy 8:17-18 NLT).

“…For apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5 NLT).

“And who is adequate for such a task as this? . . . It is not that we think we can do anything of lasting value by ourselves. Our only power and success come from God” (2 Corinthians 2:16, 3:5 NLT).

“There are no ‘self-made’ people who have power in and of themselves. They cannot claim responsibility for their birth, their genetic makeup, nor the political, economic and social circumstances and times into which they were born. God allows us to live at the time and place of his choosing. Wise leaders continually remember where their power comes from so that they use it in accordance with God’s values and will.” (TouchPoints for Leaders, Wheaton, IL, Tyndale House Publishers, 2004, page 181).

The more you use power for self-advancement, the less you really have. Power used in selfless ways grows giving glory to God and blessing to others.

 

 

 

 

 

“Lord, you have a problem here…”

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I was talking with a friend who had experienced a remarkable healing from cancer. It was hard to distinguish between the effectiveness of medicine and the power of prayer, but my friend, Laura, gave God the glory. Then after a number of years the cancer returned.

“I’ve told everyone God healed me. Now what?” she asked through tears.

“So what are your prayers like now?” I asked.

She said, with a smile breaking through the tears, “I’ve been saying, ‘Lord, you have a problem here!’”

I never thought of a prayer like that. At first it seemed a bit presumptuous to me, as if God were obligated to help her for the sake of his own reputation. But her spirit was humble. She was trusting God, not testing God. So I continued exploring Scripture with her prayer in mind.

You do not have because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures (James 4:2-3 NIV).

Laura was not being selfish. She truly wanted people to be encouraged to trust God because of her story.

“You parents—if your children ask for a loaf of bread, do you give them a stone instead? 10 Or if they ask for a fish, do you give them a snake? Of course not! 11 So if you sinful people know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good gifts to those who ask him” (Matthew 7:9-11 NLT).

Countless scriptures call us to pray based on God’s love for us as cherished children. God wants to be part of our lives and for us to be equipped for his work.

I began to realize I often limited my prayers to my own imagination. If I couldn’t see a practical, reasonable answer, then I wasn’t sure how to pray. Laura released her concern to the Lord, without any need to “filter” her request through questions like, “What’s really possible now?” or “Lord, how could you ever do this?”

I experienced a breakthrough in prayer when I realized I didn’t have the figure out the answer to my prayer. I could just lay the problem at the Lord’s feet—and let go. It wasn’t up to me to solve it. I learned to say, “Describe, don’t prescribe.” Don’t try to tell God how to make it happen.

Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you (1 Peter 5:6-7 ESV).

I hope you understand what I mean when I say I think God enjoys “showing off” sometimes. Not to build God’s ego—that’s ridiculous. But to delight us with the wonder of it all.

Think about God’s creativity

…with Abraham and Sarah giving birth to a child, Isaac, when they were far past child-bearing capabilities (Genesis 18);

…with Gideon doing battle with an army of 300 instead of 30,000 (Judges 7);

…with Elijah and the widow of Zerephath experiencing the miracle of God providing flour and oil for months during a time of famine (1 Kings 17).

Then there is the experience of King Jehoshaphat facing the invasion of three armies coming against Judah. He prayed, O our God, will you not execute judgment on them? For we are powerless against this great horde that is coming against us. We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you” (2 Chronicles 20:12). The next morning, they gathered with the choir ahead of the army and began to worship.

22 And when they began to sing and praise, the Lord set an ambush against the men of Ammon, Moab, and Mount Seir, who had come against Judah, so that they were routed. 23 For the men of Ammon and Moab rose against the inhabitants of Mount Seir, devoting them to destruction, and when they had made an end of the inhabitants of Seir, they all helped to destroy one another (2 Chronicles 20:22-23 ESV).

My faith grows when I see God work in ways I could never imagine. I love it when I look around and say, “Wow! I never saw that coming!”

If I could figure it out, I wouldn’t depend on God.

Don’t prescribe, just describe. And watch our creative God work!

 

Getting the Right Boss

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Copyright 2017 by Stephanie Curry

There was a time early in my ministry when I was overcome by the pressures of the congregation.  It seemed that I was encountering low-key opposition and resistance everywhere I turned.  The harder I worked, the more ineffective I felt. I was praying and journaling about my struggles for several weeks.  One day I began my journal entry, “Lord, I am so tired and discouraged. I know you called me to be the servant of this congregation…”

Suddenly it was if the Lord interrupted and seemed to say, “No I didn’t!”

“Excuse me?!” I replied.

“Yes, I called you to serve this congregation, but you are MY servant.  You are not to take orders from them, trying to please them in every way. You do not ultimately answer to them.  You answer to me.”

I immediately thought of the Bible verses that says, “Whatever your task, work heartily, as serving the Lord and not [your masters], knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward; you are serving the Lord Christ” (Colossians 3:23-24 RSV).

Since then, I have learned to say to myself, “I am not the servant of this congregation.  I am the servant of Jesus Christ assigned to this congregation at this time.” That simple change in perspective has had a profound impact on my sense of direction and differentiation from the congregations to which God has called me.

Now, you may be thinking, “Well, that’s great for pastors, but in the Real World, it doesn’t work like that.” First, we could have a wonderful discussion about what “the Real World” is! What’s more real than God and spiritual matters and being a part of God’s continuing work in this world — where we pray God’s “kingdom come and will be done on earth as it is in heaven”??  Still, I know what you mean: In the “real world” of institutions and organizations and people who do not operate on the plane of the highest of spiritual values and principles, this sounds unrealistic. But let’s test it out.

Whenever we consider our place in this world, we have a choice about how we “frame” our understanding. In the case or work, we ask ourselves questions like,

“Does my faith affect my work in any way? If so, how?”

“How will I honor the Lord in the everyday routine and demands of this job?”

“How does this job affect my sense of self and my participation in God’s continuing work in this world?”

I’m focusing on just one aspect of a “theology of work” here– so realize this is part of a much larger conversation. The key question is: Who’s my real Boss? That’s not just a questions for pastors and people in vocational ministry, serving churches and parachurch organizations (like Young Life, CRU, World Vision). That’s one of the implications what Paul’s advice to the people in Colossae. In the verses immediately preceding the quote above Paul said, “Bondservants, obey in everything those who are your earthly masters, not by way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord” (Colossians 3:22 ESV).

This the exhortation to slaves or bond-servants gives us a framework for approaching our work. Our ultimate motive is honoring the Lord. That perspective brings relief, refocus and responsibility.

Relief. When this thought first came to me, I was relieved. My stress level went down because I suddenly “resigned” from having over 500 bosses to having One. I continued to give my best efforts, motivated by honoring God, not pleasing everyone.

In any workplace, it’s a relief to remind ourselves continually that we are serving the Lord and others in practical ways in and through this job. This will actually make us more effective workers, as we’ll consider in a moment.

Refocus. People-pleasing is a no-win strategy, especially when we realize the limitations of our earthly job circumstance and of our peers, subordinates and supervisors. Paul wrote in Galatians 1:10, Obviously, I’m not trying to win the approval of people, but of God. If pleasing people were my goal, I would not be Christ’s servant.

When we live for an audience of One, we live differently. We have a different perspective on people. We value them as individuals created in God’s image without fearing them (Psalm 27:1) or giving them the power to define us. We value ourselves and work on appropriate assertiveness and boundaries. We tell ourselves, to paraphrase Rich Kriegbaum in Leadership Prayers, “This is not who I am, Lord. It’s just what I do.”

Responsibility. This posture does not make our job easier. It will likely make it more “difficult,” but in a healthy way. We actually will work more effectively and conscientiously when we keep our eyes on the Lord. We will ask ourselves important questions, beginning with, “Lord, why do you have me here at this time?” It may be as a healthy presence in the workplace, as an example of a different way to do things, as another voice to speak into the relationships. Instead of asking, “What can I get away with? How little can I do?” we will ask, “Lord, how can I do this in a way that will encourage people to think well of You?”

When we think this way, work becomes a ministry, not just a way to get a paycheck.

Ecclesiastes 3:22 says, “So I saw that there is nothing better for a person than to enjoy their work, because that is their lot.” Work is not a curse, but it is affected by the curse, and that affects our expectations. Remind yourself continually that, no matter where you are, you know you are working for the best, most gracious Boss of all.

 

Ctrl+Alt+Del

“Ctrl+Alt+Del” can be a powerful daily cue for spiritual focus.

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Ever go through a routine for the umpteenth time and suddenly ask yourself, “Huh, I wonder why we do this?” That’s what happened recently when I turned on my computer and the “Ctrl+Alt+Del command” appeared on the screen (Ok, so now you know I’m a PC user, not a hip-and-cool MacBook guy). So I did the search thing and found an article in Wikpedia (it was adequate for this) that explained it this way:

Control+Alt+Delete (often abbreviated to Ctrl+Alt+Del) is a computer keyboard command on IBM PC compatible computers, invoked by pressing the Delete key while holding the Control and Alt keys: Ctrl+Alt+Delete. The function of the key combination differs depending on the context but it generally interrupts or facilitates interrupting a function.

This is known as a “soft reboot,” or re-start function.

Well, enough nerd talk. Looking beyond it, I see a message for spiritual health. One of the keys to spiritual vitality is learning to become aware of God and pay attention to our spiritual welfare throughout the day. In my first blog post, “Stop, Look and Listen,” I shared the concept of Cues and Clues: Cues and clues to life’s deeper meaning and purpose surround us in every moment. But it’s so easy to miss them. This is one of them: “Ctrl+Alt+Del” can be a powerful daily cue for spiritual focus. The keyboard can “interrupt” our normal, too-often-nonspiritual, functioning so we can spiritually reboot.

First, “Ctrl” or Control reminds us to “release Control to God.” One of our greatest burdens in life is thinking we have control and that we have to make things happen. On the flip side, one of the most discouraging things in life is feeling powerless and out-of-control. Faith brings us back to the awareness of God’s kind, loving oversight of our lives. I draw great strength from Jesus’ words,

“Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten in God’s sight. But even the hairs of your head are all counted. Do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows” (Luke 12:6-7 New Revised Standard Version NRSV).

That kind of reassurance takes me a long way toward trusting God more and more with more and more. I could list many more passages from the Bible, but let’s move on.

Second, “Alt” invites God to “Alter our mind, heart, soul and way of living.” I believe Jesus’ followers want to live differently. We don’t want to be stuck in the same dark thoughts, the same lousy habits, and the same undisciplined, worldly-driven lives. And, praise God, we don’t have to stay stuck. God is in the change business. That change starts with the fact that we have the mind of Christ (1 Corinthians 2:16). God has given us the Holy Spirit to change us completely from the inside out. But that doesn’t happen automatically. God has designed us to mature by inviting the Holy Spirit, God’s power within us, to lead us into the fullness of life in Christ. The Holy Spirit helps us think like Jesus. The Holy Spirit empowers us to act like Jesus. The Holy Spirit is shaping the life of Jesus within us. Here is the staggering description of what God is now doing in us:

Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit (2 Corinthians 3:17-18 New Revised Standard Version NRSV).

That is life-altering, friend! “From one degree of glory to another.”

And third, (you can see where this is going, right?) by God’s grace in Jesus Christ, God “Deletes the sins that still preoccupy our thoughts.” Many of us live with a low-grade depression because of regrets that weigh us down and because of thoughts and behaviors we can’t seem to release. A daily (or more frequent) spiritual reboot reminds us that God is not surprised by our sin. In grace and mercy, God’s Spirit continues the work of healing, restoring and strengthening us to overcome sin’s power.

If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous (1 John 1:9-2:1 New Revised Standard Version NRSV).

So when you log on to your computer, let “Ctrl+Alt+Del” be your log-in to Jesus and the Spirit’s power.