Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Striving for failure

The other day I did two significant things. I went to the YMCA to work out, and I met with our Philippines "flight crew."

It struck me the next day that there are many, many parallels between striving for spiritual fitness and striving for physical fitness.

Lately at the YMCA I have been hitting the treadmills pretty hard. I have never been a graceful runner, and running long distances has always eluded me. Sometime around 40 -- so a few years ago -- I started trying to run again. It has not come easy. Seems like I always need to run a short distance (maybe half a mile) and then walk for a while. Over time, if I'm consistent in my running discipline, that ability slowly, slowly gets better. Lately I've been working toward the ability to run two miles without having to stop to walk. For weeks I have had that goal in mind, and I have failed consistently. I'll get a mile, or a mile and a half, and then need to quit. (NOTE to those of you who routinely compete in half marathons: Don't say anything.) I can see I'm getting more capable each week, but that two mile goal has still eluded me. From one point of view, I have failed over and over again to reach my goal of running two miles non-stop.

Until Monday. That day I ran 2.25 miles before I had to pull back to a walk. It felt good. And immediately I started thinking to myself, "I wonder how long it will take before I can run three miles without stopping?"

Spiritual conditioning is very similar, but most of us don't understand it and so we don't do the hard work of improving our spiritual skills. I hear people say all the time, "I could never talk to someone about Jesus," or "I could never pray out loud" or "I could never lead a study / teach a Bible class / preach a sermon." And I could never run three miles without stopping.

Here's the secret to improvement: Failure. If you do not push yourself to the point of failure again and again and again, your ability never grows, and the point of failure stays where it always has been. But if you try to do things you're not capable of doing, over and over and over again, your ability will grow.

So find the intermediate goal that is still beyond your abilities. Feel like maybe God's Spirit is nudging you toward public speaking? Try speaking out within a small group of friends. Find a context where you can teach a simple topic to half a dozen people. Offer to share your personal testimony within a church service. Do something small that pushes you beyond what you think you're capable of doing. Push yourself until you fail. Then push yourself again. Once you achieve one goal, start in on the next.

Part of the reason this concept stood out so clearly to me was that I have the privilege of working with this amazing Philippines team. Each individual member of the team is biting off more than they can chew in order to make this trip a success. Each one is sensing the nudging of the Holy Spirit pushing them beyond what they thought was possible. For some it's been discomfort asking for financial support. For others it's public speaking, or the idea of leaving home and family to travel across the world. There are lots of things that take these remarkable individuals beyond their personal limits. And they keep stepping up and trying and trying and preparing and working. I have no doubt that whatever this group is called to do, we will be able to do it. It's an amazing privilege to watch and be part of this process!

Take a look at 2 Corinthians 9:24-27 or Hebrews 12:1-13 for more on this idea.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Murder in the Cathedral, for Lent

One of my favorite plays is by T. S. Eliot, Murder in the Cathedral, published in 1935. Eliot wrote in Britain, contemplating the tensions across Europe produced by the rise of Adolph Hitler to power in 1933, and the obvious foreshadowings of great evils to come, not least against the Christian Church. For those with eyes to see, the paralysis and complacency of both the other European states and of the German people was appalling. Eliot eloquently uses a historical story to draw attention to the awful situation developing in Europe in the 1930's.

The play goes back in history to the murder of Thomas a Becket, the Archbishop of England, in the year 1170 AD. In the quote that follows it is worth remembering that the Greek word marturios means "witness" and not "martyr" as we use the term today. The following can be applied to anyone who wants to lose his or her own life, in any sense, for the sake of Jesus Christ and his gospel.

I'm going to quote at some length from the interlude in the middle of the play, where Eliot has Thomas preaching a brief sermon. Here is part of it:

"A Christian martyrdom is never an accident, for Saints are not made by accident. Still less is a Christian martyrdom the effect of a man's will to become a Saint, as a man by willing and contriving may become a ruler of men. A martyrdom is always the design of God, for His love of men, to warn them and to lead them, to bring them back to His ways. It is never the design of man; for the true martyr is he who has become the instrument of God, who has lost his will in the will of God, and who no longer desires anything for himself, not even the glory of being a martyr. So thus as on earth the Church mourns and rejoices at once, in a fashion that the world cannot understand,; so in Heaven the Saints are most high, having made themselves most low, and are seen, not as we see them, but in the light of the Godhead from which they draw their being."

Later in the play, after Thomas has been murdered by the agents of the king of England, the Chorus, made up of townspeople who saw Thomas' death coming but dared not speak out against it, speaks for us in marked contrast to Thomas' pure desire to be submissive to the will of God. The play ends with these words:

"Forgive us, O Lord, we acknowledge ourselves as a type of the common man,
Of the men and women who shut the door and sit by the fire;
Who fear the blessing of God, the loneliness of the night of God, the surrender required, the deprivation inflicted;
Who fear the injustice of men less than the justice of God;
Who fear the hand at the window, the fire in the thatch, the fist in the tavern, the push into the canal,
Less than we fear the love of God.
We acknowledge our trespass, our weakness, our fault;
we acknowledge
That the sin of the world is upon our heads; that the blood of the martyrs and the agony of the saints
Is upon our heads.
Lord, have mercy upon us.
Christ, have mercy upon us.
Lord, have mercy upon us.
Blessed Thomas, pray for us."

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Philippines preparations continue

Our "flight crew" -- the team that is planning to actually get on the plan and go to the Philippines in March -- has been meeting weekly. We've divided out the various talks that will be included in the Alpha training seminars. We've also divvied up some of the administrative duties. We've spent a good amount of time praying together and digging into scripture together. Someone made the comment at our meeting last night that God just keeps opening up the doors!

A large part of that door-opening is our "ground crew" -- those who will not be getting on the planes but who are invaluable to this effort. We have a number of people that have been paying close attention to this trip from the very beginning -- some who always knew they weren't called to go, others who flirted with the idea of being part of the flight crew but realized that this is the wrong timing for them. Still, they are faithful in prayer, in emotional support, and in giving. Yes, many people have put their dollars into this trip, and that support makes this whole thing financially feasible. We're not fully there yet, financially speaking, but we can see God providing our daily bread through the generosity of his people. So to those who have been giving, THANK YOU!

(If you want to give toward this trip, please feel free -- the easiest way is to either mail a check to Central Lutheran Church, 1103 School Street, Elk River MN 55330 and put "Philippines" on the memo line of your check ... OR you can go to Central's website, and give online using the "other" category and put "Philippines" in the line to the right of your gift amount.)

Plans continue to grow more real on the Philippines end, too. Ronald, our main contact and host in the Philippines, continues to do an amazing job of putting details together for our lodgings, seminars, and transportation. He is such a gift! We just received and accepted an invitation to speak at HisLife Ministries in Bacolod (one of the cities where we'll be speaking), too -- Pastor Joebert Ramos invited us to a special gathering of his leaders in the evening after our day-long seminar there. JR is a dynamic leader and it's exciting to think of meeting with him and his people again! (Julie and I were at HisLife one evening in 2005.)

If you are praying for this trip, please continue to pray for:

  • God's generous provision for our financial needs -- pray with great thanksgiving!
  • For God to continue leading and guiding us in the details as we prepare.
  • For our families as we prepare to be gone from them for an extended time -- for health, peace, and encouragement.
  • For our continued development and growth as a team.
  • For Ronald, JR, and others who are planning activities and connections for us.
  • For the Filipino church leaders who will attend our seminars, for open hearts and eagerness to embrace the vision of Alpha as a powerful tool for making disciples of Jesus!
  • For the Filipino people who will be invited in the coming months to these new Alpha courses -- that the Holy Spirit would move in their hearts and bring amazing growth to the body of Christ in that region!
Thanks so much for your prayers, for being part of our "ground crew"!

Friday, February 17, 2012

Coaching, continued

So I met with Terry Walling today, among other things. Here are a few reflections from the day:

  • So often I feel like I do roughly C+ work. I had a long talk with Julie about this over brunch this morning, and then bounced some ideas around with Terry this afternoon. Basically this is a time thing. I scatter myself across too many tasks and don't have time to do what I do best.
  • What I do best is usually -- not always, but usually -- thinking hard and deep about things, then living in authentic relationships that enjoy the fruit of those reflections. So when I scatter myself among too many tasks, I don't have time to think hard and deep about things, and I don't have time to invest those reflections in authentic relationships. I pay lip service to deep thought and I pay lip service to authentic relationships. It's sad.
  • Terry pounded me pretty good today with a few basic insights. Here's one: Up until now you have led based on your skills. You will not be able to continue this. If you are to move forward, you will need to lead people who have expertise you can't match into tasks you can't do. The only way you can lead this kind of people is through your spiritual authority.
  • Spiritual authority comes from being with Jesus. That's it. You get close to Jesus and his smell gets on you and people follow you because you smell like Jesus.
  • Therefore, intimacy with Jesus has to be your highest priority. You have to go deeper with Jesus if you are going to continue moving forward.
  • Don't be afraid to go radical. Don't be afraid to make massive changes in your life if they are the changes that are Jesus-focused, biblical, and that help you move into your sweet spot in ministry. For example, Terry asked me, what would happen if you dealt with the daily tasks and details only on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and took other days for deeper thought and intentional relationship building? That's intriguing.
So in the process, with the help of a few people, I revised my Major Role statement. The latest version reads like this:

"I listen for and discern kingdom possibilities and teach biblical truth in order to help people make real change. I equip others for ministry and growth toward maturity in Jesus Christ."

Terry made the point that a major role statement should be like a filter. It lets the big chunks through -- the things I'm really supposed to do. And it stops the other stuff. So if I hold potential tasks up to that, I'll be able to filter what I should say yes or no to, and make decisions about where to spend my time and energy.

So the quiet time, the reflection time, the scripture time, should be listening and discerning kingdom possibilities. Out of that reflection should come a biblical perspective rooted in God's truth revealed in Jesus and in scripture that I can use to help reveal God's plans and God's perspective to people -- maybe hurting people who need to repent, or maybe eager Jesus-followers who need to step up and respond to God's call -- to make real change. Out of that moment of repentance and/or stepping up, I walk with these people to equip them to serve God in new ways and to grow into all God plans for them in Jesus.

Earlier versions of this statement made it more explicitly about the church. As I have thought about that, I've realized that even though I'm trying to think "people" when I read "church," I still fall prey to believing that I'm supposed to be dedicated to the institution. That is not where I'm called to spend my effort. So making it more about people helps me keep it focused where it's supposed to be.

So one thing Terry and I talked about today is that this statement should work for me whether I'm thinking about a discipleship group at church or about spending time with my daughters. I'm thinking we're getting pretty close.

Why am I sharing all this on my blog? Mostly because if you don't have someone who helps you gain perspective on your life, you're missing out. I encourage you to find someone to help coach you through where you're at in life, whether you're just starting out or whether you're coming to the end. No matter where you are, it helps to have someone keep you sharp and help you focus your efforts so that Jesus can use you for his kingdom as fully as possible.


I spent the day today with Central's program staff and Terry Walling, who is serving as a sort of staff coach for the next almost three years. Terry has a real gift for helping Christian leaders make personal and professional breakthroughs. We spent the entire day today with him, with the exception of about 90 minutes late in the afternoon when we took a break.

The first part of the day focused on each of us personally as leaders. We worked through our particular stages of life and challenges facing each of us. We went through some exercises to help us come up with a statement of our "major role" -- that is, how we function best, how God has wired us to work. This is not just about a list of tasks that we need to complete, and then divvying them up to the most appropriate staff person. Instead, these exercises come from the radical philosophy that each one of us should try to function as much as possible in exactly the way God has wired us. So my task is not primarily to look at my to-do list and figure out how to be efficient; my task is to know Jesus, first of all, and then to know myself in and through Jesus, so that I might know how God has created me to function. Once I know this, I have a clear decision making tool that will help me say "no" to the many good things I could do, but should not do.

For example, leading the 11 am worship service is a very good thing, and for a brief time back in the spring of 2011 I did that. But that task, good as it is, is not a best fit for the way I'm wired. So I should probably say no if the opportunity for that kind of leadership comes up. (Thank goodness, we now have other resources in place -- people who are much more capable of fulfilling that need for Central.)

Once I learn to say "no" to the good-but-not-best opportunities, I can begin to joyfully say "yes!" to the best opportunities. The trick is for me to know how God has wired me, so that I know where God's calling on my life is likely to come.

One of the tasks we worked on today, and one I've been working on since just after Christmas, is writing a statement about our "major role." I've worked through a dozen or so drafts of mine as I've read and watched videos and filled out worksheets to help me understand this process. Here's what I've come up with so far, with lots of help from others:

“I listen for and discern kingdom possibilities and teach biblical truth in order to help people make real change. I long to see the church set free and equipped for ministry, growing toward maturity in Jesus Christ.”

I'm not entirely sure I'm satisfied with this just yet. The statement itself might need to be clearer about the fact that for the most part, I build ministry teams more than I work to equip lone individuals. There are times, though, when I invest intentionally in the life of an individual or a couple, so maybe that can be left ambiguous. There's something that doesn't strike me as quite complete about this. I find myself worrying that there's a big chunk of what I do that isn't reflected in this statement.

Terry was quite clear that this statement is like the title on a file folder. Inside the folder you have additional documents that describe in detail the tasks you fulfill -- the what-you-do-and-how-you-do-it part of things. This is designed to be a filter, a way of saying, "No, that's way outside what God has called me to do," or "Yes, that's exactly what God has called me to do."

I should hasten to add that sometimes, you do things that need to be done just because they need to be done. I'm certainly not wired to clean my desk (many of you are grinning at this point, having seen my desk) but every now and then I need to do that task. Same goes for sitting down with someone who needs to vent or caring for someone who can't afford groceries. Even if that's not how I'm wired, sometimes those opportunities just come up and you need to step up to the plate.

What this major role statement allows is some discretion on the big jobs I take on. It's very much a work in process, but then, that's okay. So am I.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Philippines preparations and more

Lately my life has been dominated by three work themes: Pastorates, Alpha, and preparing for the Philippines trip.

We've made a great deal of progress on all three fronts. Pastors Paul and Sonja and I have been meeting with pastorate leaders, conducting trainings, getting leadership teams in place. Now the trained leaders will be consecrated on Sunday in the large celebration worship. They'll then spend Lent (the 40 days before Easter) praying for and having conversations about the pastorate they will launch. Their initial gatherings will take place in April, and then the pastorates will hopefully be functional starting in May. We have eight leadership teams, so given our target size for these groups at 25-35 people, that means we will have between 200 and 280 people involved in pastorates if everything goes according to plan.

Alpha started Saturday evening. We had about 40 guests, a whole bunch of volunteers, and lots of excitement. It was quite clear that God was already working, even that first evening! A new Alpha is always exciting. It is so fun to anticipate the work God is going to do in people's lives during the coming ten weeks. I don't even wonder "if" anymore -- I just wonder "what"! There is no question in my mind that many people who were at Central on Saturday evening will look back at the winter of 2012 as the time when God really made significant changes in their lives.

For the Philippines, we have now purchased tickets and figured out a solution to the incredible maze of flights and schedules between Minneapolis and Iloilo City. Along the way God even answered prayers for the cost of flights to go down, just in time! It had looked like the airfares were going to be about $300 per person higher than we thought, but instead they came in about $100 lower. What a gift! I've also been in the midst of a flurry of emails back and forth trying to arrange lodging, schedules, and such. We are so blessed to have a few people on the ground in the Philippines who are making arrangements for us. The team on this end has divided up the various talks and responsibilities for our seminars, and we are running through, practicing, and getting ready for those presentations.

There are a few other odds and ends, like getting ready to teach a week long Spiritual Formation class at CLBI in Camrose, Alberta; prepping for my World Religions class, trying to figure out how best to encourage high school students to take an interest in other religions; and getting ready for a miniature staff retreat on Thursday and Friday with our coach, Terry Walling.

Life is full!

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Skin in the game?

Michael Hyatt's latest blog post has me thinking this morning. Take a few minutes and read his story about taking personal risks.

Hyatt is exceptionally good at putting me back on my heels and making me reconsider some of my basic assumptions. This morning I'm asking, "What's at stake personally for me?" So I'm looking at my work, especially, since I just arrived in my office and read Hyatt's post while I was getting my desk arranged for the day. I am thinking about a few current projects:
  • Alpha launches this Saturday with somewhere in the neighborhood of 35 guests. (There's still room if you want to come!) I met yesterday with our Alpha co-coordinators, and we talked through guests and potential guests, volunteers, group leaders, and schedules. There's always a flurry of details and activity with the launch of a new Alpha course, and this one is no exception. I'll need to pull out notes this week and review my talk for Saturday evening, and spend some time making sure all my ducks are in a row. I'm excited -- we haven't run a full-sized Alpha since 2009, when I ended up in the hospital during the launch and our Alpha leaders did such an amazing job carrying the course through.
  • Our Philippines team has a meeting tonight to plan for our trip. Currently the countdown to leaving for the Philippines seems to be ticking WAY fast. The recent earthquake in the Philippines struck very near the area we'll be visiting, so that adds to our list of prayer concerns. Last we heard there were twelve dead and 40 missing in this earthquake. There were tsunami warnings out but I never heard of any damage from the sea. I'm also excited because Alpha Philippines (the organization affiliated with Alpha International) is just a fledgling effort right now, and I just heard that the Philippines national coordinator for Alpha wants to attend our seminars. We continue to raise funds and we need to get our tickets purchased in the next few days.
  • Monday evening Pastors Paul & Sonja and I led the first of two training sessions for our potential pastorate leaders. As regular readers know, I am so excited about this pastorates movement and how Central is grabbing hold of it. I have been yearning and praying and pushing for this since 2006, and as I look back before that, God has laid the foundations for this push in my life back to my earliest days. So Monday was full of last minute details of planning and praying for the training, final edits and printing the curriculum I've been writing since early December, and more.
  • Yesterday I bought plane tickets for my trip to the Canadian Lutheran Bible Institute, where I'll be teaching for a week. This will be my third year teaching at CLBI, and I love it. It's a small school -- about 80 students -- focused like a laser on helping young people commit themselves to following Jesus. I need to start spending time with their student directory, praying for the different students and getting to know faces and names. I need to pull out the material I'll be teaching, too, and revise and refresh the lesson plans so I'm not trying to teach last year's stale material.
  • I need to figure out a few details for the World Religions class I'm teaching for high school students in our local homeschool partnership. My daughters have been out of that group for a few years now, but it's still delightful to be back with those families and students. I love teaching this World Religions class, but it can be a challenge to help students see beyond their own narrow slice of Christianity to a broader world of beliefs and practices. They'll be interacting with people of other faiths -- not to mention other brands of Christianity -- for the rest of their lives. I seriously believe this class can be amazing preparation for them as they move out into the world.
So that's a sample of what's on my mind as I read Hyatt's blog this morning. I'm certainly busy enough -- maybe too busy. This week seems like a perfect storm of demands from each of these -- and several other -- directions. My head has been spinning and I'm not winding down after work very well. My wife is very helpful in helping me see when I'm overcommitted, and this week she's had a big mirror held up to my face because she loves me and doesn't want me to burn out.

I'm plenty busy enough. That's not the point.

The question I'm asking now is, if I fail in any of these areas, what will it cost me? Do I have skin in the game in any of these areas, or have I carefully insulated myself from the costs of potential failure?

If we had more time to think about such things this morning, we could also talk about the costs of success -- because each of these bullet points above carries tremendous potential to cost me time, energy, money, and reputation if I succeed. But I have not thought much about the potential costs of failure. It makes me wonder about the real depth of my commitment. If I recognize the potential costs of my success, but don't think about the costs of failure, is there a temptation for me to back off, to do mediocre work, to stay away from the sharp edges of effort in order to shield myself from the costs of success?

What about the costs of mediocrity?

Oh, there are lots of questions, and I'm afraid I don't have many answers this morning.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Do you know Christianity?

In my spare time I teach a World Religions class for high school students through a local homeschool partnership. One of the biggest challenges with this group of students is that most of them think they know Christianity. We talked about the difference between studying a religion and practicing that same religion the other day. Then we talked about whether or not they know Christianity.

For example, I asked, can you tell me how many sacraments are recognized within Christianity?

Their initial response was, "What's a sacrament?"

Strike one.

These are not unintelligent students, nor are they uninformed about Christianity. Quite the opposite, in fact. When we wandered into more familiar territory, they argued among themselves with eloquence and care. The trouble is, they think they know Christianity.

It's sort of like thinking you know Minnesota when you've never been outside your own home town. Never seen the headwaters of the Mississippi? Never been to the Boundary Waters? Never wandered the Mall of America, or the Minnesota Zoo, or the Capitol building? Never seen the pipestone quarries or the Red River Valley or the tamarack bogs or the statue of Paul Bunyan and Babe in Bemidji? Then how can you say you know Minnesota?

Many of us find ourselves in a similar place regarding Christianity. Do you understand the Eastern Orthodox icons and their role in eastern Christian spirituality? Do you get why Roman Catholics "pray" to Mary or other saints? (Hint: it's not about idolatry.) Do you understand why many Christians from other traditions mistrust Protestants' single-mindedness about "salvation by grace alone", and what are the biblical foundations of that mistrust? Do you know the Christian movements that recognize seven sacraments, and those that recognize two, and those that don't recognize sacraments at all?

Obviously, most of us have no idea how to answer these questions. Yet millions of people throughout the world claim the name of Jesus and live in a devotion to him that leads them into each of these practices or beliefs.

Most Americans practice a narrow version of their own Christianity. Nothing wrong with practicing one version of Christianity. What is offensive, though, is when we claim to have exclusive rights to the brand name of Jesus and tell anyone who practices Christianity differently that they're off base.

It's a little like me telling you that if you're not from Zimmerman, you're not a Minnesotan.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Ground crew Dad

So some of you might have noticed that I haven't posted much on this blog about my daughter Erica leaving for six months to go to Central America. There are a couple reasons for that.

First, I've just had a lot of other stuff to post about -- pastorates, Alpha, Philippines trip, and more. It's a busy time in my head.

Second, Erica leaving has been more of a heart thing than a head thing and I haven't had a lot of words to describe the experience until recently. I wasn't quite sure what I would write about it. There were things I needed to say to Erica, and there were things our family needed to talk about, but those weren't really the kind of things that I wanted to post on this blog. In this Facebook age, I still believe in good boundaries. There is a kind of inappropriate putting-absolutely-everything-out-there that is the rule rather than the exception on too much of the internet.

The question that seems appropriate to address here, though, is the one so many people have asked me since we entered the countdown of Erica's last couple days, and especially since she left on Wednesday: "So, Dad, how are you doing?"

It's a little complicated to answer. One thing I can say for certain is that my heart is full, full to overflowing, and that often moves me to tears. These are not tears of grief, just (as Jesus said) "out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks" -- or the eyes water. So I tear up a lot, and then that passes and I wonder what it was all about and I realize it is just another example of having a full heart.

Many people seem worried that I will be caught up in grief. Nope. How could I grieve for this time? I love Erica dearly and will no doubt miss having her around, but that is a light and momentary kind of grief. No, we have been praying for this -- for her to be open to what God wants, to follow Jesus wherever he leads -- since before she was conceived. Part of the overflowing of my heart is seeing in so many tangible ways the answers to many, many prayers. She has heard a call from God in many and various ways these last years; this call at present has led her to this semester abroad in Guatemala and two months this summer in Honduras, serving at the Manuelito Project. How can I grieve for this?

I know the fullest life she can possibly know is the life of following Jesus, the life of Mark 10:28-31. If we are seeking God's kingdom together, our relationship is transformed from the merely human parent / child relationship with all its trials and tribulations, and we begin to know each other as members of the Lord's family, children of the same heavenly Father, part of the priesthood we share in Jesus Christ, workers together in the kingdom of God. I pity those Christian parents who cannot bear to release their children for the sake of the kingdom. They doom themselves and their children to living in less than what God desires for them, and they miss out on the joy of working together for goals far beyond human capability.

So my heart is full, in so many ways.

And just when I think maybe I'll grieve just a little bit, I saw (about a half hour ago) that Erica was on Facebook, so I chatted her, and then in the middle of it an unfamiliar number called my cell phone and voila! There she was on the other end of a clear, static-free line. Things have changed a bit since I was nineteen.

Thank God.