Don’t Stop Living Before You Die!

Man relaxing in a reclining chair

I knew a man who was alive and vibrant in his church in his 30s.  He seemed to grow and connect with others in a meaningful way.  However, something happened in his 40s.

He found his recliner.  That became his location for much of his life.  Sitting and mindlessly watching hour after hour of television.

Then there are others who seem to live vibrant meaningful lives until the day they die.  Don’t misunderstand.  For many of these people, life is anything but easy. They might have family struggles and health challenges.  Yet, these people are fully alive.

So what can a person do to stay fresh all of her life?

  1. Build rhythm into your life (Luke 4:40-43; 5:15-16; 6:12-13).  Many have no rhythm at all.  Rather, they respond to every distraction (Facebook, Twitter, texts, e-mail, for example) that might come their way.  People with rhythm understand that they must determine the priorities in their lives and manage their energy, or the distractions will consume them.
  2. Practice some of the spiritual disciplines to help with your formation.  There are numerous spiritual disciplines available and various resources that might be helpful getting a better handle on this.  However, two very important disciplines are prayer and Scripture reading.
  3. Invest in your family – even if they are grown.  There is something life-giving about serving one’s family.
  4. Be aware of your own emotional maturity.  Some of us carry baggage from the past into our marriages and the church.  Many people have sought professional counseling and have received tremendous help.  Grappling with these issues can take time, but will ultimately bless your relationship with your spouse and children.
  5. Be a good steward of your body.  My entire being is impacted by exhaustion, and a lack of sleep.  This, coupled with little exercise, is a recipe for fatigue and lethargy.  Ignoring my physical body impacts the rest of my being.

We don’t all live forever, of course.  However, I would like to stay vibrant as long as I am alive physically.  So much of this has to do with intentional decisions that you make today.

What I Heard When I Began to Listen

question-markI will not forget these stories.  

I was a young minister.  I began preaching for a small church in North Alabama. In this community there were many, many churches. I was grateful for the opportunity to serve in this congregation.  I preached each week.  I taught Bible classes.  I  began to meet with people and learn to listen to their stories.

I spent a lot of time listening.  Sometimes it might be a conversation that took place on the parking lot after church. Or, it might a conversation that took place over a cup of coffee at a local coffee shop.  I met with some at lunch, some in my office and others in their homes.  I learned to listen. In fact, I learned that many people longed to have someone really listen to their story.

What I heard:

Many men and women are deeply wounded.  So often those wounds came through their own families of origin. Perhaps they had a domineering father who was heavy handed with his wife and children.  Sometimes a mother refused to draw near to her children emotionally.  With other people, these wounds seemed to focus adults who portrayed a commitment to the Lord (on Sunday’s and Wednesday evenings) while living a very different lifestyle during the week.  One person told me of a father, had several “emotional affairs” with women, which seem to be one of the family secrets.  At the same time, he was heavily involved in the life of their church.  The children (adults now) have been deeply wounded by this behavior.

Many men and women bear lingering guilt from their own sins.  I heard from people who wondered if there was anyone else like them in the congregation.  Sexual sin, drug use, drunkenness, stealing from work, abandoning one’s wife and children, etc.  Many people wondered if they will not be forever tainted by what they have done.  Others attended Sunday morning assemblies and concluded that others just didn’t seem to have any problems.

Many men and women wonder if there really is any hope for someone like themselves.  Many of us might be amazed if we knew the stories of people who are in churches with them each Sunday. I remember the beautiful young woman who told my wife and me that she was called “lard bucket” (as a child) by her father because of her weight issues.  One mother raised her children to deceive their father, telling them to not tell him what she bought at the store.  Some grew up with families that were a mess and they, as children, spent their childhood and emotional reserves trying to keep their home together.

When All Around Us Seems Tense

To say that the nation is tense almost seems like an understatement at this point.

In recent days:

  1. Five police officers in Dallas slaughtered.
  2. Two more African-American males dead.  St. Paul.  Baton Rouge.  A significant portion of this population does not feel safe and that has to be a real concern.
  3. Marches and protests.  Some very peaceful.  Others violent.

Meanwhile, in the midst of this is much noise.  Talk.  Loud talk.  One can hear opinions 24 hours a day, seven days a week on the news channels.  Others go to Facebook and argue online.  We are in a fierce political season.  Both political parties have much to say and some say it very stridently.

According to many, this all seems to come down to either/or!

tension_smallA few suggestions:

  1. We can listen well.  I watched one news show recently where guests screamed at one another during their segment.  I doubt that either really heard the other much less caused the other to think.  Of course we have ideas and opinions.  Yet, so often we seem to put very little energy into listening.  We may even find ourselves appearing to listen when in fact we are simply waiting for the other to stop talking so that we can say what we want to say.  When we really listen, others feel respected and valued because we actually listened.
  2. We can love well.  I’m not suggesting that we reduce our relationships to sentiment.  Sometimes love will confront and challenge.  Sometimes love will apologize and admit wrong.  Sometimes love will name a particular behavior as unjust.  Love may even attempt to correct a wrong.  For a Christ-follower, this kind of love is not fueled by rage but by the love of God (I John 4:7-21).

In both our loving and our listening, we can practice humility.  Humble people realize they don’t have all the answers.  Humble people don’t posture themselves as if they are several steps ahead of everyone else.  Such an attitude is presumptuous and even arrogant.

During tough times, we hopefully will realize that we all have a long way to go in terms of living as a genuine disciple of Jesus before others.  Living well in a tense time will call for men and women who are serious about both their loving and their listening.

When Men Leave Emotionally

(The Frustrating Silence of Emotional Withdrawal)

basement_series_sadness-500x332What does a man do with pain?

Many men simply leave.

No, they don’t necessarily leave physically. Rather, they leave emotionally.

I recently heard a friend of mine talk about this as he reflected upon a very difficult time in his life.  I could identify.

Many men have learned that the safest place to take one’s pain is within.  While withdrawing may be one’s default for dealing with pain, it is not conducive to connecting with another.  In fact, to family members and friends it can feel like the person has “gone away.”

Most men who leave emotionally do not do so maliciously.  I don’t believe most have the intention of being difficult or hurting their family and friends.  Rather, this may be the comfortable default that has been a part of one’s life for many years.

So when we leave one another emotionally, where do we go?

  1. Some of us just stay very, very busy.  We lose ourselves in our work.  Maybe we can stay so busy that we are not preoccupied with the pain we feel.
  2. Some of us look for substitutes.  Alcohol.  Drugs.  Pornography.  Or, a man may lose himself in his children so he doesn’t have to address the issues of his marriage.  Or, he can volunteer for numerous activities at church.  It may be hard to argue with someone who is heavily involved at church.  Yet, this can be a way of not dealing with pain.
  3. Some of us retreat to a room within ourselves which may seem safe but actually serves to disconnect us from the people we love most.  This “man cave” might be a place where we occasionally revisit the moments of shame, humiliation, and disappointments in our lives. Perhaps it is the place where we house the pain we experienced as children.  Or, it may be the place where we occasionally sift through the ashes of our hurts and resentments.

As a result, many men live with an anger that quite often comes to the surface.  Or, such men can experience depression.

Does a “Thank You” Really Matter?

National_Thank_You_DayDoes a “Thank You” really matter?

Yes.  It really does!

Many of us perceive ourselves to be grateful people.  Often it is because we feel grateful.  We think about how thankful we are to others.  We may hear someone’s name and immediately feel very warm and thankful for them.  Yet, many, many people rarely, if ever express their gratitude.  Far too many people rarely say “thank you.”

You ask your sister to pick up a sandwich for you on her way home from work.  (She has called asking if you would like anything at fast food place where she is stopping.)  She gets home, hands you your sandwich and the first thing you say is, “I told you I didn’t want onions on this sandwich!  And where is the mustard!”  Not exactly a “thank you.”

So often, it is those closest to us who rarely, if ever, hear a “thank you.”

For example:

A young father asks his parents to keep your children for the evening while you and your wife go out to eat.  During the evening, your little girl falls off her bike and skins her knee.  Your parents explain what happened when you return to pick up the kids.  He responds by saying, “I told you that you have to watch her closely!”  Yet, they have set aside an entire evening to care for these children.  Not exactly a “thank you.”

A friend buys a gift for your child’s birthday.  She sends it in the mail.  Its not exactly the gift you would have chosen.  You never mention the gift to your friend.  If someone had mentioned this to you, you might have said, “Of course I appreciate her sending the gift.”  Yet, this is not exactly a “thank you.”

  • Maybe some may not express their thankfulness because they feel entitled to receive whatever people will give them.
  • Maybe some assume that others know they are thankful.
  • Perhaps some of us think we are expressing our gratitude much more than we really are.
  • Finally, some may say “thank you” but then behave in ways that really don’t reflect any kind of graciousness.

At this point, you might think, “Wait a minute, I tell people ‘thank you.z’  I express my gratitude for whatever someone does for me.  Many of us do express our gratitude to customers, co-workers, and the people we interact with everyday.  Yet, some of us take for granted our family and our closest friends.

The following questions might be worth some reflection as they pertain to friends and family:

  • Do others see me as a thankful person?
  • Is there someone in my life who feels taken for granted by me?
  • Are there people in my life who are long overdue for a word of gratitude?
  • Is there someone who has done a favor, sent a gift, or who has shown kindness who still has never received a heartfelt thank you from me?

Of course, one can simply dismiss this as irrelevant.  It could be, however, that regular expressions of thankfulness, as well as simply being thoughtful to friends and family could do wonders for these relationships.

We All Need a Do-Over

(Both the Prodigal Son and the Elder Brother Need God's Grace)

prodigal-son-by-charlie-mackesyDo you ever wish you could have a do-over?

As a teenager, I used to play golf frequently at the Tenison Golf Course in Dallas.  One of the first times I played, I hit a terrible drive off the tee.   Someone said, “Take a mulligan.”  I learned that “mulligan” was just another word for “do-over.”

There is nothing like a do-over.  Grace through Jesus is the ultimate do-over.  

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.  (Ephesians 2:8-9)

A do-over is what so many of us want and desperately need from God.  

We would like to be forgiven. We would like to be washed clean of our sins and failures. Many of us look back at the last decade, the last year, or even yesterday and realize how we have strayed from the desires of God.  Maybe, you know all too well that you desperately need the grace of God.

The sins that are mentioned in I Corinthians 6 are all too familiar.  Consider some of them: Those who are dishonest, those who are sexually immoral, those who swindle others and the list goes on. Paul tells these people that this is what some them were (6:11).  “But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and By the Spirit of our God.”  Today, as in Paul’s day, Jesus gives each one of us the opportunity to experience the ultimate redemptive d0-over.

It may seem obvious that some need a d0-over.  After all, they did something really bad. We know we have sins but theirs seem so much worse.  Yet, even the best people need Jesus. The truth is that we make a big mistake when we focus on those who have committed certain sins while minimizing our own.

Every single one of us desperately needs Jesus.  In the story of the prodigal son (Luke 15), both the rebellious younger brother and the self-righteous older brother need Jesus.

Consider two kinds of people:

The “Younger Brother or Sister”  This person lives a lifestyle of sin and may be in complete rebellion to God.  As a woman told me on one occasion, “Nobody is going to tell me what to do.” She was involved in a lifestyle that tore apart her family and seriously hurt her children.  Yet, she was determined to do what she wanted to do.  She didn’t care what anyone thought and more importantly, didn’t seem to care what God thought about the choices she was making.  Fortunately, she eventually returned to her senses.  She surrendered to the will and the desires of Jesus and her life was changed.

The “Older Brother or Sister”  This person wrestles with sin as well.  Yet, in her mind, her sins are not near as bad as the sins of the prodigal son or daughter.  She would quickly acknowledge that “we all sin” and yet, she treats others as if their sins are far worse than her own.  Like the older brother in Luke 15, she may resent that some who have changed their lives for God are getting so much attention and affirmation.  In fact, she may even resent that the prodigal son was forgiven.  In her mind, the prodigal son might be better off if God would occasionally remind him of his past sins.

The good news of the Gospel is that in the cross, God’s love is big enough to forgive the unrighteous and the self-righteous.  Now that is good news!

 

 

 

 

What a Minister Can Learn from a Congregation

hand (1)

Many ministers learn a great deal from the people they serve.  Others seem to learn very little. Much of the time, this says more about the minister than the congregation.

Ministers typically have a front row seat to the congregation.  This is a wonderful opportunity for a minister to grow, mature, and learn. Unfortunately, some miss opportunities for growth and development.

The following are a few realities I have learned from congregations where I have served.

I learned from some of our business people the importance of process.  Far too often, ministers and elders completely ignore any sense of processing an issue with a congregation.   For example, perhaps the congregational leadership has spent 4 – 6 months talking and praying about a major mission project.  This would be a major undertaking for the congregation requiring a significant financial commitment.  Finally, they decide to bring this project before the congregation.  The preacher preaches a few sermons and then an elder makes an announcement about starting this new project. Then the leadership seems stunned when the congregation has reservations or resists this particular initiative. While the leadership has had plenty of time to process this mission possibility, there doesn’t seem to be any sense of a process for the congregation.  Yet, this will be a major undertaking for these people requiring a significant commitment.

I learned from several business leaders in congregations the importance of process as it relates to leadership.  At least some of the conflict that congregations experience could be managed better if leaders would simply pay more attention to process.

I learned from some in these congregations about the depth and complexity of the pain they deal with.  Oh my goodness! Did I ever underestimate this as a young minister!  Yet, walking with so many through various situations has given me the opportunity to learn and grow.

Some in the congregation will talk about what is taking place in their families. Some will confide in a few close friends or perhaps one of the church leaders.  Far too many simply sit in silence.

I learned from these congregations what makes preaching helpful and effective.   I have read many preaching books and other works which discuss particular aspects of preaching.  Many of these have been helpful.  Yet, there is much to be learned from the people themselves about what kind of preaching is helpful and what is not.  I am not suggesting that one allow a group of people to necessarily determine one’s entire approach to preaching.  Rather, I am suggesting that we strongly factor into the mix what we might be learning from these people.   As a preacher, I have to ask, “Is my preaching connecting with this particular group of people?”

I learned from so many people that God could use me even as an ordinary human being.  I have known a few ministers who seemed intent on proving to the church that they could be just as coarse and crude as anyone else.  Perhaps they thought they would be perceived by others in the congregation as more human.  Perhaps this was a reaction to the way ministers are sometimes perceived by others. The perception by some is that they are almost superhuman -above and immune to temptation.  As a result, some ministers become far too self-conscious as they try to create a particular image or persona before the congregation.

I think it is far more important that a minister simply live as a human being among a congregation. No need to prove that you are human with flaws, shortcomings, and sins.  Many people will become aware of this all too soon.

 

Who Are You Trying to Please?

(From Self-consciousness to God-consciousness)

1978cadillaceldoradoAt the time, it was a new luxury car.  It was a car that I could only dream of owning.  The owner was a wealthy man in our small church. I was a newly married, young preacher.  That morning, as I walked out of our church building, I could see him already sitting behind the wheel of his parked car, puffing on a big cigar.

As I walked by his car, I waved to him.  His window slowly came down.  He glared at me and sternly said, “Let’s don’t talk about race anymore!”

That morning I had preached a sermon and at some point had said something about race and the way we treat one another.  As I recall, I spoke regarding the way we as Christians are called to treat others, regardless of ethnic group.

Apparently this man did not like what I said.  This was a new experience for me.  I had never had someone immediately snap at me like this regarding what was just said in a sermon.   I responded by saying something like, “I was just applying the message of the text that I was preaching this morning.”

I thought about his remark throughout the day.  I knew he was used to having his way.  I also knew that he gave more money on Sunday morning than anyone else and that our small church was impacted by his gift.  I reflected on what I had said in the sermon and genuinely believed that what I said was appropriate.

On one level his comment was about race but it actually was about much more.  His comment forced me to reflect on why I preached and why I did any kind of ministry in the first place.

When Your Problem is Overwhelming

138173-424x283-TroubledTeenShe sat in my office staring at the floor.  I’ve seen that look so many times on the faces of men and women who have experienced hurt.

Sometimes, life is really hard.

You may feel hurt, disappointed, and empty.

You may feel numb.

Whatever the reason, there comes a point when you need to hear once again a word of hope.

I love Psalm 73.  In fact, it may be one of my favorite Psalms.  The Psalm speaks of a person who says that his “feet had almost slipped.”  He became so discouraged after seeing the unfairness and pain that exists in the world.  He saw the “prosperity of the wicked” (73:3).  It seemed as if they had no struggles, burdens or the common human ills (73:4-5). They were a prideful and arrogant people (73:6-8).  The world was not working right and it was very discouraging to this writer.  He felt as if his faith was all for nothing (73:13)

However all of this changed later and he came away from the sanctuary very encouraged.

Can Others Tell When You Are Afraid?

fear1.jpgThat afternoon, we drove away from their house. We had been in a difficult conversation.  We met with a woman whom we both liked and admired but found difficult.  She seemed self-assured and almost smug. I told my wife that it seemed as if she perceived herself to be an expert on most subjects.

Yet, Charlotte had a different take on this woman.  “She is actually quite fearful.”

Upon reflection, I think she is correct.

How do you spot a fearful person?  Is this a person who is cowering in the corner with fear?  Not necessarily.  This may be a 30 year old man who, like an insecure boy, is doing his best to appear cool.  Actually, one may be speaking with a fearful person and yet not really be aware of this person’s fearfulness.  This person may actually be dominated by fear. Children are often more obvious in the way they express their fear.  They typically fight or flee when they are afraid.  Adults respond in much the same way, only we try to mask our fear.