Thursday, January 26, 2012

Open Eyes

This past weekend, the community in which I live was jolted awake by the senseless murder of a high school student. Students and parents alike have been shocked, they have had their worlds upended at such an act of violence in a fairly quiet, suburban town. How could something like this happen? What caused it? How do we prevent it from happening again in the future?

The initial blow of something like this always causes fairly volatile and raw emotions to flow freely from those who have been most affected. Attempts to reconcile violence are rarely simple. We live in a fallen world, broken and twisted by sin, and the resulting aftermath of that is never easy or simple, nor is it ever comfortable to live with. Life can be difficult and sometimes causes us to wrestle with questions that have no simple or easy answers.

I grew up in a small, quiet, suburban town in Connecticut. There were a number of times throughout my childhood that our community was rocked by things that seemed so out of place. Just because a community comes across as a real-life Bedford Falls does not mean that there are not deeper secrets lurking beneath the surface. When those secrets come out, which they will inevitably do, they are met with resistance and disbelief, especially for those who don’t approach life with open eyes.

I work in a church. I am a pastor. My family is in church every Sunday that we are healthy. Our presence in church does not excuse us from the reality of life. We are not immune from bad things simply because we believe in God. I also realize that it is not the responsibility of my children’s Sunday school teachers or school teachers to teach them certain things in life. I am a parent, whether I like it or not, that comes with certain responsibilities. I did not have children so that someone else could raise my children. I did not have children to arrange like ornaments on a tree, they are not simply for show.

There are things in my life that I have done that no one would have expected from me. I was not proud of them, but I do not dwell on them. Through Christ, I am forgiven. In many ways, my parents were pretty oblivious to those things. I grew up with other kids who were involved in things that their parents could probably never have imagined. If the truth was discovered further down the road, it most likely came as a shock.

Although my children are very young, the relationships that I establish with them now will determine the relationships that I have with them in the future. If I am not involved with who they spend time with, what they look at, what they read, and what they listen to now, how much will I be involved with any of that stuff when it can have a dramatic influence on them?

I learned a long time ago that one of the worst phrases that I could ever utter is “I would never…” I have seen the repercussions of eating those words after they have exited my mouth. I have seen others do the same thing. I will not say that I will never be a parent who does or does not do something. I am a flawed and broken individual who is in need of grace, that’s what Christ is and does for me, brings me that grace.

I know that I want my children to feel comfortable being honest with me. I want them to know that there are consequences to certain actions, but I don’t want those consequences to prevent them from telling the truth. It has been my experience that the consequences of truthfulness are much less severe than the consequences of dishonesty, especially when that dishonesty is discovered. We can only hide from the truth for so long before it finally makes itself known.

I want to be a parent with open eyes. I want to see my children through the eyes of love that God has given me, but I do not want that love to blind me to the fact that they are as fallen and broken as me. They need a savior as much as I do. They are as capable of making mistakes and poor choices as I am. Grace is allowing them the freedom to let that happen and still loving them afterwards. It is also the realization that there are consequences to mistakes and choices, sometimes irreversible.

I hope and pray that lessons can be learned from the tragedy that my community has experienced. I pray that parents might look at their children with open eyes of love, seeing them as “perfect” and yet willingly admitting that they have their flaws. I have always joked that my wife and I did enough things when we were young to keep us pretty well-informed about the potential things our own children might get into in the future. Even with that to be considered, we still remain fallible. May God continue to form and shape us to be who we need to be in Him. May He give us the grace that we need and the wisdom and discernment to know how best to handle the situations that life will inevitably throw at us.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Painful Growth

At my church, we’ve spent the month of January looking at the idea of reflex. A reflex is an automatic response to something. Some reflexes are good, some are bad. We generally think about the idea of reflex when it comes to our bodies. When someone throws something at us, our reflex is to raise our hands and shield ourselves. When something comes close to our eyes, our eyes shut for protection.

As we prepare to wrap up our series, I have been thinking about the idea of training our reflexes. If we aren’t happy with the way that we react, the way we respond or reflex, can we change it? I think that we can. But we don’t do it alone, we don’t do it overnight, and it takes work.

Training is all about improvement and strengthening. In order to grow, we need to push ourselves. Most of us are probably not disciplined enough to do that by ourselves. I would guess that it’s a fairly small percentage of the population that is so self-motivated that they never need accountability in their training regime. The rest of us, we need all the help that we can get.

In order for growth to happen, we need to begin to experience breakdown. Training is painful, it hurts. We push ourselves to the point where our muscles actually experience trauma and during the rest that we give ourselves after a workout, the muscles repair themselves to be just a little bit more prepared, more strengthened than they were when they experienced the trauma, so that the next time they are faced with the same thing, it won’t happen again. That’s why we need to keep pushing a little bit more every time.

There are a few dangers in this process. We could push ourselves too hard, causing more than a slight trauma to our muscles which will not repair itself in a shorter time period. If this happens and we don’t give ourselves adequate time to recover, we may cause more severe damage. Even if we don’t push ourselves too hard, if we don’t give our bodies adequate time and resources to recover from the trauma, we also might cause problems. We need to provide our bodies with the best case to recover from the trauma that we have put them through, eating right, resting, and doing whatever we can to nourish them.

If we go through the process of working out and don’t really push ourselves, we won’t see any significant improvement. We will find ourselves on a plateau where we are continuing the same. There needs to be some pain associated with our growth. If we don’t push ourselves just a little bit further than we did the last time, we will just stay the same.

Whether we fully realize it or not, this process of growth applies not only to our physical bodies but our spiritual bodies as well. To be honest, it’s much easier to look out at a group of people and tell that they haven’t been working out physically than it is to look out at the same group and know that they haven’t been working out spiritually. It’s easier to hide spiritual “flabbiness.” But if anyone spends any time with you, they’ll be able to tell, it will come out in your conversations, your reactions, and your attitudes.

In some ways, the Western church has plateaued in regards to a spiritual workout. I am guilty of it myself. It’s easy not to push myself. It’s easy to do things the way that I did yesterday or the day before and not push myself. I don’t care which spiritual discipline that we’re talking about, if we don’t push ourselves a little bit more than we did yesterday or the day before, we will not grow.

If we’re not “feeling it” at least a little when we’re done with a workout, chances are that we didn’t push ourselves as much as we could have. I’m too satisfied with stagnancy, too satisfied with staying the same, too satisfied with not pushing myself. That’s why I need others in my life who can hold me accountable, who can kick my butt and push me more than I will push myself.

No workout will be successful if there isn’t an adequate amount of preparation as well. If I’m eating a lot of crummy food that doesn’t provide nutrients, vitamins, and minerals to my body, my body won’t be able to sustain the stress that I am putting it under. In the same way, if I am not eating and drinking from the source of God’s Word, getting a healthy diet, my workouts will be for naught.

It’s easy to look at the year ahead and makes a lot of plans as to what to do, how to eat, and how to live. The hard thing is the follow through. May we all commit and find others to hold us accountable so that we might experience true growth. May we all “eat” nutritious meals so that we might allow ourselves to be nourished by the Word of God. No growth happens if He is not a part of it

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Dark Side

Let’s face it, every one of us who have worked at least a day in our lives have had at least one boss that was just a jerk. Some of us may have had more than that, but I’m pretty sure that we’ve all had at least one experience with an arrogant, egotistic, self-centered, and dictatorial boss.

Having had some experience with bosses that were less than desirable to work with and for, I have grown somewhat sensitive to my own methods in leading people, whether paid or volunteer. I have caught myself elevating the tasks above the people, obsessing over what needs to be done rather than the people that need to do it. That kind of leadership is destructive, leads to high turnover, and treats people as simple cogs in a system: replaceable and lifeless.

When I worked as a consulting engineer, I went through the project manager training with my company. Much of what we talked about and were taught had to do with budgets and managing the project in regards to tasks and activities. Not much was spoken about managing people. With project management, the project and budget are an important and vital part, but it is the people who get the work done and to miss that is to miss great management and leadership.

One thing that I have really appreciated about my seminary experience is that there is a high focus on theology and Scripture but there is an equal emphasis on leadership, so much so that there is a possibility of pursuing the Master’s of Divinity degree with a focus on Transformational Leadership. As I continue to take leadership classes in pursuit of my degree, I am acting like a sponge, doing my best to soak in all of the wisdom and knowledge that I am learning from these classes.

I read a book the other night for one of my classes called “Leadership by the Book: Tools to Transform your Workplace” by Ken Blanchard, Bill Hybels, and Phil Hodges. It’s an older book and often, I have to admit, I judge a book by its cover. I was not incredibly hopeful when I took a look at this book. I just didn’t know what I was going to get out of it, it seemed fairly generic. I was pleasantly surprised at what I got out of it. Below are a number of quotes that stood out to me in reading the book.

“He came to believe that people were content merely to talk about good leadership practices rather than actually implement them.” (p. 14)

“His duties were quickly defined by the existing traditions imposed by a strong council of lay members whose families had attended the church for three and four generations. The senior pastor, while kind to his new associate and interested in some of his innovative ideas, had become a reluctant but weary upholder of the status quo.” (p. 28)

“Jesus is interested in us becoming different people, not just in our acting differently.” (p. 40)

“The weakness of rules is that people can always find a way to live comfortably within the letter of the law without it affecting their hearts or character.” (p. 41)

“People who are leaders first are too often those who naturally try to control, to make decisions, to give orders. They’re ‘driven’ to lead – they want to be in charge. And they’re possessive about their leadership position – they think they own it.” (p. 42)

“Leaders often just don’t know how to develop people, and they end up doing all the work themselves. In addition to burning themselves out, their people remain dependent on them and underdeveloped.” (p. 55)

“When people’s egos take control, they become other-directed and determine and evaluate who they are by external rewards, not internal peace.” (p. 69)

“They try to overcome their spiritual emptiness by striving to hold on to control and maintaining their leadership position at any cost.” (p. 73)

“…the most important people in organizations – those individuals who have contact with customers – spend all their time looking over their shoulders trying to figure out what their boss wants rather than focusing on the needs of the customer.” (p. 133)

“I’ve discovered that people don’t mind tough goals if they know they have a manager who’s in their corner.” (p. 148)

This kind of leadership, both within the workforce as well as in the church, is not found as often as it should be. Specifically within the church, an organization that has a tendency to be a few years behind in the area of innovation, the business models and principles that have been adopted are outdated and treat pastors more like managers rather than shepherds. Eugene Peterson has a lot to say about this in his book/memoir “The Pastor.”

Whatever it is that we do, wherever it is that we lead, we cannot lose sight of the fact that we are leading people. They have thoughts, emotions, and feelings, just like we do. When they are cut, they bleed, when they are insulted or demeaned, they hurt. People cannot become just a means to an end. The minute that they become that to us as leaders is the minute that we need to step back and ask ourselves whether or not we are leading correctly.

Monday, January 9, 2012


Anyone who has read my blog over the past few months knows that 2011 was a crazy year for my family. 2012 has not proved itself much better. My family was hit with the stomach bug right after New Year's and now my wife is working on her first cold of the school year. Props to her immune system for having gotten her through the Fall with no major issues. The difficulty is that she's got 3 kids (5, 3, and 3 1/2 months) to take care of, making it difficult to slow down.

Our house is alive with chaos. With two boys (5 and 3) there is a lot of energy and activity. We may clean up a room temporarily, only to have it completely destroyed within minutes, if not seconds. I'm really not sure how so many people with small children are able to keep their houses in order the way that they do. But I think there' a difference between a messy house and a "lived in" house. While we have probably been lingering around the former, the difference may be more subtle.

I can honestly admit that I have too much going on in my life. Most, if not all, of it is no fault of my own. Circumstances have created the situation that I find myself in and many of those circumstances are beyond my control. Caring for a parent who has been ill, taking extra responsibilities at work because of the departure of someone else, caring for my family, and trying to push through my last year of seminary are all consuming me. I am not prepared to abandon any of those things, so I find myself in a place where I need to manage the chaos.

That's really a false statement though, I cannot manage the chaos. The more that I think that I can, the more chaotic it will become. Instead, in my weakness, I rely on the strength of the One who has created me, the One who provides me what I need.

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to lead worship with some of the members of the Hillsong team from Australia. It was an incredible experience as they were humble and kind, not haughty or pompous as some who have achieved success might be. There were a number of other people who were local who had been asked to be part of the team that was leading worship for this conference.

One afternoon, between conference sessions, I sat down at the piano to play a worship song called "Still" that was written by a member of the Hillsong team. One of the vocalists, who was local like me, came in while I was playing it and mentioned to me how much that song had meant to him. It wasn't until later that I understood how much it had meant to him. The words are below:


By Reuben Morgan

Hide me now, under Your wings.

Cover me, within Your mighty hand.

When the oceans rise and thunders roar,

I will soar with You above the storm.

Father, you are King over the flood,

I will be still and know You are God.

Find rest my soul, in Christ alone.

Know His power in quietness and trust.

When the oceans rise and thunders roar,

I will soar with You above the storm.

Father, you are King over the flood,

I will be still and know You are God.

I had come to find out later the story of the gentleman who had come in while I was playing this song. He had lost his wife and a few of his children when their car was caught in a flash flood. He had desperately tried to save his family, to no avail. He was a fairly young guy and there was nothing about him that gave me any indication that he had been through such a horrific event. As I played the words through in my head, I realized how powerful they must be to him.

As chaotic as life gets, as difficult as our circumstances might be, we do not serve a God who is removed from this mess. In fact, the author of Hebrews writes in Hebrews 4:14-16, "Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need."

I don't understand the chaos that is part of this life sometimes. I know that my chaos pales in comparison to what many other people have had to experience. I know that God never intended chaos, but it is a result of sin. Although I know these things, it doesn't take away the pain and frustration of having certain experiences, it simply gives me hope for the future.

When I experience difficulties, I do my best to heed the words of the Psalmist to be still and know that He is God. I can rise above the storms and floods and find rest in God alone. There is no better place to be in the midst of a storm than in the arms of my Father.

Here is a link to the song "Still" if you have not heard it. I hope that God can speak to you wherever you might be.