Five Suggestions for Cultivating Freshness

5Some of you may find this post particularly helpful.

I am going to share five practices that have been helpful to me in cultivating freshness. Hopefully, at least one of these might be helpful to you as you prepare your mind and heart for a new school year.

Each July, for the past nineteen years, I have stepped away from my daily ministry/work duties for the month.  Two weeks are vacation and two weeks are devoted to study.  I do no public preaching or teaching during this month.  The congregation that I serve has graciously supported this rhythm.

This month not only allows me the opportunity to rest and enjoy vacation, but has enabled me to spend focused time reading, praying, and thinking.

I want to share with you several practices that you might find valuable as well.

If You Could Change One Thing About Your Church

(I am away on a vacation/study break during the month of July. The posts that appear during the month are from the archives.)

What is it that would help your church be more effective in its ministry?

I suspect that the answers to such a question might be varied. For example, some might say they wish that someone would give more attention to what actually happens during a Sunday morning worship service. Others might say that they wish their church offered more for children or teenagers. Still others might suggest that the preaching could be more engaging, challenging, or relevant.

What about your congregation? What would help your congregation in its practices?

Maybe you see room for improvement in a certain area. In seeing such a need and acknowledging it, you are not discounting your church. Nor are you suggesting that the leaders of your church are not making an effort and working hard. (You may be one of those leaders!) No, you are simply paying attention to the effectiveness of your church and acknowledging what you see.

I Have Heard So Many Secrets

(I am away on a vacation/study break during the month of July. The posts that appear during the month are from the archives.)

Through the years, as a minister, I have sat with person after person and listened to sad, difficult stories.

I have heard so many secrets.

The alcoholic father who told me of his affair with his high school daughter’s friend.The foster children who told me of a cruel woman who isolated them in a basement each evening, while the rest of the family ate dinner together. Later, they were brought the family’s leftovers.The mother who grew up constantly hearing critical, demeaning words from her mother.

The man, who as a child, had lived with a brutal, bullying father. Yet at church, his father was perceived to be very godly.

The young woman who told me of the abortion she had while in college and how she had lived with this secret for several decades.

I am reading Joe Queenan’s memoir,

It is the story of a boy who grew up in a Philadelphia housing project. He and his three sisters are forced to make do. They live with their father and mother in an atmosphere that does not feel emotionally or physically safe. Their mother repeatedly said to her children that she wished she had never had children. Their mother seemed emotionally disconnected from the family. Meanwhile, their father was a violent man — especially when he drank:

My father got broke when he was young, and he never got fixed. He may have wanted to be a good father, a good husband, a good man, but he was not cut out for that job. He liked to drink, and unlike some men who like to drink, it was the only thing he liked to do. Among our relatives, he had a reputation as a happy-go-lucky fellow who, once he got a few beers in him, would turn into the life of the party. He was not the life of our party. Most of the time he was already dead drunk when he came home from work, spoiling for a fight with whoever crossed him first. (p. 7)

His father, when he was drunk, beat his children, quite often. The rest of the family, instead of condemning such behavior, seemed more interested in providing excuses for such behavior. Queenan says that, “Manufacturing excuses for my father’s behavior was a family industry.” (p. 9)

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Some ministers are perceived to be important.servant-leader-570x311.jpg

When I first began preaching and serving as a “full-time minister,” I soon realized that some preachers were considered to be important people.

That struck me as interesting and even a bit odd.

After all, I was a business major in college. It wasn’t until after I had graduated from college that I began to think about the possibility of becoming better equipped to serve God. I wasn’t going back to school for a new career. In fact, to this day I have never referred to my work as a minister as a career. Instead, I tend to think of my work as a calling that I am doing as long as I think this is what God wants me to do.

I do remember, however, when it occurred to me that some ministers were perceived to be important people.

  • They were invited to speak at large gatherings of Christians.
  • They were described as having “preached in some of our most influential pulpits.
  • They were characterized as “highly sought after” ministers.

For a while, I thought that I should pursue importance. (Yes, this is embarrassing to admit. I know that is not a good thing. I know that idea reeks of pride. I’m just telling you what went through my head.) After thinking about this (way too long), I began to wonder if I was losing my mind. I do remember, after all, the times when Jesus was approached by people either perceiving their own greatness or wanting to be great.

“I Shouldn’t Say This, But . . .”

You’ve heard these before haven’t you?Mouth.jpeg


“This may not be right, but . . .”

“I don’t want to gossip, but . . .”

“Maybe I shouldn’t say this, but . . .”


Why would we say something like this? Why would we acknowledge what is wrong and then proceed to do exactly what we want to do?

“Look, this really isn’t a big lie. This is what you have to do in this business if you don’t want to lose an account.”

“No, I didn’t tell them what was wrong with this car before I sold it to them. It’s up to them to figure it out. I’m not about to lose any more money on this car.”

“OK, I’m not proud of what I had to do to pass the test this morning. You don’t understand; if I don’t do well on this class, I won’t get into graduate school.

“Maybe my resume isn’t exactly accurate. Look, I need to make this look as good as possible. This is what everyone else is doing. There are a lot of people wanting this job and I need any advantage I can get.

“Plagiarism? No, you don’t understand. Everybody has to use someone else’s material now and then. It’s just a part of it.”

“I know you are over twelve, but tickets are so much cheaper for children under twelve. I told the ticket lady you were under twelve. It’s no big deal.”

“Yea, I was up late last night. My child had a paper due that I had to write. No, she had not even started. If I had not written it for her, she would have gotten a bad grade.”

“Hey, if my wife asks where we went, tell her that our golf game lasted longer than normal. I don’t want her to know where we went.”

Some people rationalize and justify behavior if it seems to give them an advantage.

Meanwhile, as followers of Christ, we are invited to do what may seem irrational. We are invited to trust God with our lives. We are asked to turn the management of our lives and future over to him.

So often, we don’t trust God. We like the idea of trusting God. We do not like the notion of trusting God with the details in the practical areas of our lives. We do not know if he will take care of us even if we do the right thing. We do not trust him with our future. So, we take over and “do what it takes” in our feeble attempt to manage our lives.

Do you feel this tension in your life? Do you feel the tension between wanting whatever might give you an advantage (though it might involve dishonesty) and knowing you have been called to trust God?

I have found it to be fairly easy to say, “I want to trust God.” I have found it more difficult to trust God with a particular decision or issue when a lot might be at stake. Yet, I know that God wants me to learn to trust him with the details and the outcome.


Question

Have you felt this same tension in your own life at times?

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Each Thursday, I write a post particularly for church leaders. The following is part of a list of habits for church leaders who want to grow and develop. You can find part 1 here  and part 2 here.

Habit #6. Adjust your expectations.

See-the-world-inside-a-toilet-paper-roll_2.jpgWhen I first began preaching, my expectations of people were way too high! I was constantly disappointed in others. My assumptions on the front end were skewed. For example, I thought that everyone who was connected in some way with our church was trying to live right. It wasn’t everyone’s personal weakness that was the surprise but that we were not even united in our intentions.

Meanwhile, my expectations of God were far too small. I didn’t really believe that he might do amazing things through prayer. I didn’t expect God to do anything in my life. Consequently, I lived with a strange set of expectations for both the church and for God.

I began to grapple with this and lowered my expectations of people so that anything that a person did that was good was an act of grace. Meanwhile, I began to raise my expectations of God, thanking him for the grace that I experienced in him whether I witnessed his power or not.


Habit #7. Pay attention to people.

This particular habit is so important. It is a gift we can give to one another that can add energy. Basically, you follow two practices:

  • You attempt to catch people doing what is right.
  • You ask about what is very important to another person.


Habit #8. Empty your mind regularly.

In David Allen’s book Getting Things Done, I have learned the importance of emptying one’s mind (or doing a “mind sweep”). Basically, one takes everything that is going on in the mind and lists it on paper.

In his workshop, one of the exercises involved writing everything we were thinking about. I thought, “This won’t take long, I am only thinking about a couple of things right now.” We took about ten minutes for this exercise. I began my list and could not believe all that I wrote down. I wrote everything from “Get the tire fixed” to “Got to call Steve on the way home.” Each time I wrote something down, I then seemed to recall one more thing that I had stored in my mind.

Allen believes if we do not regularly empty our minds, then stress is the result. You must have a system in place by which you can empty your mind and know that you will come back to the things you have written down and deal with them.

Question
What habits would you add to this list?

Tom Olbricht: Reflections on My Life

For several weeks, I have been reading portions of Tom Olbricht’s new book Reflections on My Life: In the Kingdom and the Academy. Olbricht serves as Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Religion, Pepperdine University. For many years before serving at Pepperdine, he taught at Abilene Christian University.

I bought and am reading this book for one reason: my deep love and respect for Tom Olbricht. I entered Abilene Christian University in the ’80s to work on a Master of Divinity degree. My first semester I was in the New Testament theology class taught by Olbricht. From then on, I took every class under him that I could possibly take. His love for God and the church was evident. For him the theology of the Bible was not something to be discussed at a distance but was in response to the God who loves us forever.

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The book chronicles much of Olbricht’s life in great detail. Through this autobiography, the reader gets a feel for Olbricht’s experiences throughout his life in both the church and the academy. His travels and interaction with preachers and professors get much attention. As I read through various parts of the book, I continually came across names of people I knew very little about but had some interest in because of their work as professors or preachers.

One of the strengths of the book is Olbricht’s ability to tell a story. In fact, his passion for details serves to add color and flavor to these stories. One can almost hear the sound of his voice on these pages.

Not only does this book give insight into Olbricht’s life it also serves as a history of churches of Christ during a significant time in the 20th and 21st centuries.

I am grateful for Tom Olbricht’s ministry both in the church and in the academy. His teaching left a deep imprint on my thinking, my theology, and my ministry. I will be forever thankful.

  

Wanted: Moments of Grace

It was an embarrassing moment as a young minister.

Charlotte and I had been living in Abilene while I finished seminary. I had just completed my studies and moved to north Alabama where I began preaching for a church. Now, I was a full-time minister for a congregation.

I was overwhelmed and had no idea what to do.  So, I began doing what many young ministers do: I watched several experienced ministers to learn how to do this work.

One preacher I had been watching seemed to put a lot of energy into welcoming guests.  He was at the large urban church near where I grew up.  Some hotels get four and five stars for a rating.  This church would probably rate five stars in somebody’s review. People in my circle talked about this church as if they were the group that seemed to do most things right.

I did notice that they seemed to do things smoothly, unlike me.  I handled things awkwardly at times.

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One of my first Sundays I introduced a new family and asked them stand. After all, I had seen the minister at this church do the same.  I then moved on to introduce another new family.  Upon introducing them I asked them to stand.  The couple stood, but I noticed the man had a puzzled look.

“Jim, I’ve been a member of this church for a number of years.”

I froze.  I wanted to hide.   


3 Suggestions to Help You Persevere

One of the questions every Christian ought to wrestle with is: “Will I finish well?Persevere.jpg

Life with God is very much a journey. You would like to know that everyone will eventually finish. However, many do not. Some started off with you and rounded the first curve but for whatever reason didn’t finish. What happened? Think long enough and you can probably come up with names.

Some emotionally checked out long ago. They are in the pew but that may be about it. They are here but not fully present. Consider these words from Charles Spurgeon:

You know what one cold-hearted man can do, if he gets at you on Sunday with a lump of ice, and seizes you with the information that Mrs. Smith and all her family are offended and their pew is vacant. You did not want to know of that lady’s protest just before entering the pulpit, and it does not help you. Or, even worse, after the service it can happen. What terrible blankets some professors (professing believers) are! Their remarks after a sermon are enough to stagger you . . . you have been pleading as for life and death and they have been calculating how many seconds the sermon occupied and grudging you the odd size minutes beyond the usual hour.

Will you and I finish well?

Consider why some people fail to finish well.


“I have had too many disappointments.” Sometimes a disappointment impacts your will to persevere.

Maybe you are dealing with a chronic illness. You wonder if you will ever be any better.

Perhaps you have a child who seems to learn everything the hard way. What bothers you the most is that you are not sure that she is learning. You have great anxiety about her total indifference to the Lord.


“I have experienced too much disappointment with churches.” The disappointment that you experience in the church impacts your ability to persevere. You see and experience what should not have happened. It is hard for you to be hopeful or encouraged. You find that you are surrounded with others who have shared this same experience. Your negative thoughts feed on one another, and it is an endless cycle.

Eugene Peterson, in his book Leap Over a Wall: Earthy Spirituality for Everyday Christians (p. 10) wrote the following:

Every time I move to a new community I find a church close by and join it – committing myself to worship and work with that company of God’s people. I’ve never been anything other than disappointed. Everyone turns out to be Biblical through and through: murmurers, complainers, the faceless, the inconstant, those plagued with doubt and riddled with sin, boring, moralizers, glamorous secularizers.

“I have failed way too much.” The problem of your own failure impacts your perseverance. Your own sin can contribute to this loss of vital optimism. You have made some poor personal choices. In moments of weakness and vulnerability, you did something you really regret.

In his book Mid-Course Correction: Reordering Your Private World for the Next Part of Your Journey, Gordon MacDonald refers to some people who have lost their “vital optimism” – the spirit possessed by a person who believes the best is yet to be. Reality can chip away at our lives and erode our dreams.

The truth is that God in Christ is greater than whatever obstacle might stand in our way.


Today:

1. Lean in to your your life. Don’t hold back.

2. Push forward. With God’s Spirit in you, the wind is at your back.

3. Take at least one step in the right direction. Quite often, we know what the next step ought to be, but we hesitate.

Question

What has been particularly helpful to you in persevering? Is there anything you wished you had learned sooner?

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Each Thursday, I write a post focused on the needs of church leaders. The following is the first in a series of habits for church leaders (in particular) who wish to grow and develop.

Habit #1 Practice self-awareness.

With whom am I spending time? I have to monitor just how much time I spend with negative, critical people. Too much time spent with others who are constantly griping and complaining will sure enough drain me of energy. I have a friend who described one preacher as so negative that his sermons on grace had a negative edge. Yet, I can’t listen to (what seems like) an endless stream of negative talk because it really does impact me.

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What am I putting into my mind? On a typical day, I talk (email, phone call, personal conversation) with people about matters that are very serious. Someone has learned that they have cancer. Someone else is deeply concerned about personal financial debt. Still another is wrestling with marriage issues. At the end of the day, it is easy to go home and immerse myself in the national news, which much of the time is going to be very negative. As a result, I have to be very intentional about what I put into my mind. I can’t think about sad and tragic situations all of the time.

Often I make sure I watch something funny on television. I might watch a good ball game. I might read a biography, especially one that is not filled with tragedy. What I put into my mind really does matter.

Whom am I resenting? Unresolved conflict and resentments can be such energy drainers! It is amazing how much energy I can spend thinking about a person I am frustrated or angry with. Occasionally I need to ask myself, “How much time do I spend thinking about old resentments or things that long ago should have been forgiven?”

When do I re-create my body? I generally work out at the gym four times a week. My motivation for doing this is not my weight nor is it because I am a health nut. My motivation is rooted in the way it makes me feel when I am regularly working out versus how I feel when I am not. If I am not getting some kind of exercise, it really does impact how I feel. Not only do I feel sluggish, but I also tend to have less energy and motivation, particularly in the afternoons.

Some ministers get their emotional strokes by talking about how hard they work. They go on and on about what everyone has asked them to do and how busy they are. There are ministers who do not even take a day off. Not taking time to rest, to get away, and to recharge will eventually catch up with a person.