Category Archives: Spiritual Life

My Golden Retriever & The Nature of Loss

          This past Monday we had our family dog of nine and a half years put to sleep.  She was a Golden Retriever named Taffy.  My wife bought her on the side of a highway near Bastrop, Texas as a puppy-on a whim.  She quickly became a dominant thread in our family tapestry.  She tapped our pocketbook too much, she made us mad with her adolescent antics, and she stole our hearts.  She didn’t retrieve very well and she once ate most of a lasagna off of our countertop.  But she helped my seven year old daughter overcome her fear of dogs and she never veered from providing us with a rousing reception upon coming home-even if we just went to the mailbox.  She obeyed two commands-“Come” and “Sit.”  Looking back, she was our “sacred object” that got us to Italy and home again over the past five years.  In her, God provided an emotional constant to the stormy experiences of life and ministry in a foreign land.  But about six weeks ago we discovered she had cancer.  She went through a major operation just before Thanksgiving-there was just too much-it had spread too far.  We are grateful as a family that she made it this long and through the holidays.  We needed her and I think she needed us.  It has been a challenging time of transition to life back in the States.
          The pain of losing our dog has caught me off guard.  I have teared up at random times.  I have felt kind of lost and empty.  Why?  She was just a dog.  Maybe she represents the culmination of other losses.  Both of my parents passed away during our first year in Italy.  They died four months apart, also of cancer.  And I am only child.  I had only passing moments to truly process my loss back then. Fresh loss is forcing me to reconsider other losses.
          I have been reading Genesis in the Bible this month.  Genesis means “beginnings.” Chapters 1 & 2 describe God’s creative activity for the beginning of life as we know it.  The ultimate purpose for humankind is also established.  We are to reflect God’ s image and steward the rest of creation.  But in chapter 3 everything changes.  We move from being image bearers to becoming image builders-because of sin.  Fear, shame and hiding become regular drivers of human behavior. And death enters the world.  We were not meant to taste spiritual and physical death.  We were not meant to suffer loss.  But now we do.  It’s a devastating reversal of the created order.  And we especially mourn the death and loss of those who were close to us-those we loved.  Death and loss steal relationship and replaces it with seemingly unanswerable questions.  That’s why I miss my dog.  That’s why I miss my parents.  I have lost relationships that I treasured.
          Death and loss should also serve to make us wonder what is wrong with the universe.  These impostors should actually cause us to consider God because we are hard wired to sense that we were meant for more.  Genesis 3 also begins to reveal God’s rescue plan.  He is not only the Creator-He is the Redeemer.  The rest of the Bible unveils the magnificent storyline of God chasing after people to rescue them from sin and death and loss.  The end of the book reveals a re-creation that is a believer’s future certain hope.  In that future reality, death and loss are destroyed.  Relationship with our Creator is fully restored.  Do you understand?  Do you hope?
          I will feel the loss of my favorite dog for a longtime.  I will experience new losses. But I know the end of the story.  There is hope in One who died on my behalf.  And He says, “Come.”

The Inner Life of a Leader

Here we go again.  Another issue from the past haunts a politico and it is big time news.  Why is that?  Why do we obviously hold our leaders to higher standards than we even hold ourselves?  I think there are two simple reasons we do so: one, deep down we know that character actually matters-at every level of society and certainly in the life of a leader; and two, the very definition of “leader” compels us to hold such people to a higher standard.

A leader is someone who has influence.  Notice that this simple definition excludes the necessity of any organizational title.  But let’s expand the definition just a little bit.  A leader is someone who has influence towards or for a worthwhile cause.  I think we would all agree that the more significant the cause, the greater the influence.  Therefore we tend not to hold small positions to as a high a scrutiny as we do those who have high profile, highly influential positions.  But at the end of the day, all true “followership” is built upon trust (if we are not talking about a dictatorial regime).  And we trust those people who live coherent, consistent lives.  It is those people that earn our trust and our “followership.”  One definition of “influence” is “an emanation of spiritual or moral force.”  Inconsistent lives, lives that lack moral authority, don’t do this.  Character has always mattered and always will.  Someone’s true influence will always be founded upon a person’s inner life-that place where they nurture and draw upon their moral authority.  Lasting leadership must always be sustained by something more than sheer personality or communication skills.  Most people can see beyond a slick persona over time.  We follow those we trust and we trust those who live lives of integrity.  This is true for the politico as well as the pastor.  This is true for the father as well as the CEO.  This is true for the coach as well as the head of a non-profit.  You don’t believe me?  Then you are not following the news and you are not being honest with yourself.  When given a choice, you will always follow the person who engenders your trust and your commitment-and that will not come from a duplicitous lifestyle.  You may not live up to the standard you hold a leader to-but you won’t follow someone who wears the mask and wants to have influence over your life.

The inner life is that place where character is born.  The inner life is where we develop our governing center.  It is that place that chooses.  It chooses right from wrong.  It chooses good over bad.  It is not nurtured in chaos and busyness.  It is born out of a life of reflection that acknowledges something or someone greater than themselves.  The inner life is principled.  The inner life is disciplined.  The inner life shows up in the real world when it is tested.

Here are three ways a strong inner life that leads to consistent character will show up in the life of a leader:  1. They are honest about themselves and honest with others.  It’s not that they are perfect-no one is.  It’s that they can admit mistakes and handle the consequences.  In doing so they can also be honest with other people.  They have nothing to lose.  They don’t have to play games because they are not trying to hide.  What you see is what you get.  I think one reason politics and national trust is at an all time low is because we feel we are being taken for a ride all the time.  It seems that what is most important is getting elected or reelected.  The title has come to stand for dishonesty.  2. They are able to forgive and be forgiven.  A person of good character knows their own flaws and their own need for forgiveness and therefore can readily extend forgiveness to others.  It’s obvious that we are all broken in many ways.  Character takes an honest assessment of itself and sees its own need for grace.  That leads to humility which allows you to readily forgive others.  3. They lead with respect and readily give power away.  Pride leads to fear and fear leads to power hoarding, not power sharing.  Pride lives in fear and therefore dare not truly respect someone else who is equally as gifted.  Humility leads to boldness and the ability to recognize the potential in others.  Humility sees power as a resource to be stewarded and shared, because that is what will raise another person up and enable them.  Humility understands the fragile nature of all positions of power and can lead with great respect.

Look for these people to lead you.  Become one of these people so that you can truly lead others in a way that compels followership.

Jesus said it well, “The Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:28)  Was there anyone with greater character worth emulating?  Was there anyone with greater influence?

5 for Leadership

I am starting a new regular feature on my blog called “5 For Leadership.”  It will consist of five links to some great reads on leadership that I have found beneficial to me.  Please give me your feedback.  I would love to know what you think about the quality of these posts and the benefit of this blog for you in your leadership life.  Enjoy.

Leading Blog has a great review of the latest book by Jim Collins and Morten Hansen, Great By Choice.  They offer a solid synopsis of the theme and some helpful insights for understanding the book.

N2Growth blog by Mike Myatt has a very interesting post on “12 Ways to Spot Ineffective Leadership.”  I find Mike’s writing always thought provoking and practical-check it out.

Desperate Pastor Blog has an older piece (from January of this year) entitled “Spiritual Leadership.”  This post shares some insight from Samuel Logan Brengle, who was an officer in the Salvation Army.  This post takes aim at the heart of a spiritual leader.

Ode is a blog and print piece that originated in the Netherlands and is billed as “The online community for intelligent optimists.”  They did a post in February of 2010 that I think is worth a read.  It is entitled. “How Leadership and Spirituality Must Connect in the New World.”  I don’t agree with everything that is written-but the post offers an interesting perspective about the inner life of a leader for today’s world.

In case you missed it, here is a link to Desiring God where Piper wrote a very useful post on “Six Characteristics of Spiritual Leadership.”  Piper highlights six principles from the Old Testament on team leadership for the church.  It is quite good.

3 Thoughts on Life in Transition

“I am in transition.”  This is what I keep preaching to myself several times a day, every day.  Six weeks ago my family and I made a move from Florence, Italy to Austin, Texas.  We lived in Italy for five years and experienced many highs and lows.  You would think coming back to your home culture would be easy-but it’s not.  There is a general malaise that will hit me at any point in the day.  I can’t tell if I am longing for what I had or anxious about what I don’t yet know-or both.  We are experiencing what most would call a major transition.  But transitions come in many forms and can still have the same effects.  Transition can mean changing jobs, changing teams, changing locations, experiecing tragedy, losing a role, losing a community, etc.  Here are three observations I have made so far about life in transition.

1. Transition is Always Disorienting-Transition is defined as movement, passage or change from one position or state to another.  Whether we seek transition or transition seeks us, it necessarily involves change.  And change is always disorienting to one degree or another.  We leave the known for the unknown.  We move from that which has defined us to the realm of being experientially undefined.  This disorientation usually causes stress behavior.  I see it right now in my wife and children.  Of course I am not exhibiting any stress behavior-right!  My tiredness and my anger are just underneath the surface.  I can simultaneously yell or fall asleep depending on the circumstance.  Unfortunately I pride myself on remaining under control.  What I am learning is that I have to embrace this season of transition.  I must recognize the season I am in and recognize the ways that it impacts me.  AND I have to realize that it is OK.  There is a rock that is higher than I.  And I must turn to Him in my moments of sanity and realization.  Only Christ can provide me with true north to balance the compass of my disorientation.  I think the answer lies in pursuing Christ personally and as a family, embracing transition and fully trusting Him to take us through it.

2. Transition Always Involves Gain and Loss-Change is like that.  As a family we chose this transition from Italy back to the U.S.  We fully believed that this is what the Lord had for us.  Yet we lost many things in the process.  We left a country that was beautiful, had incredible food, and valued relationship.  We left American friends.  We left Italian friends.  We left a ministry that had been challenging, exciting and rewarding.  We left behind a vision and a dream of serving overseas for the cause of Christ that will not be easily recaptured.  We left behind an incredible season of growth as individuals and as a family.  And though we carry the memories with us, we have left behind the real experiences of smiles, tastes, sounds, images and conversations of a season past.  We also gain a lot.  We have linked our lives to a new and fresh vision.  We have entered into new experiences that hold the promise of new relationships, new learning, new opportunity and the application of fresh faith.  Not all of this is realized yet-and that is what makes the pain of transition so real-leaving the known and quantifiable for the unknown.  I think the solution is in giving thanks for what we have already experienced (good or bad) and believing God for what He has yet to do, but will reveal.

3. Transition Always Tends Towards Isolation-I don’t think this observation is just about me or just about being male.  When we are disoriented and unable to get our bearings there is a tendency to look inward.  There is the tendency to give in to our tiredness and a desire to feed our thirst for comfort with that which is less than satisfactory.  I think this is where temptation lurks, desiring to suck us in to it’s vortex of self gratification and temporary pleasures.  I think the answer lies in community.  In the midst of transition and all of its highs and lows-we desperately need the fellowship of like minded people who can keep us balanced and pursuing that which really matters.  Today I had lunch with a good friend who helps to anchor me and provides me with godly perspective, so that I don’t do something stupid.  In transition I am always prone to do something stupid.

What are your thoughts?  How have you faced and handled transition?  Please comment below.

A Psalm for the Nearly Insane

I  love the Psalms in the Bible.  They are experiential and they are real.  They engage me at a heart level.  I especially find it intriguing when the circumstances behind a certain psalm are known.  This is the case with Psalm 34.  The backdrop for Psalm 34 is 1 Samuel 21:10-15.  In 1 Samuel 21 King David is on the run.  He was anointed as the 2nd king of Israel back in chapter 16-but Saul, the 1st king of Israel, refuses to give up the throne.  More to the point Saul is seeking to kill David.  The desperation level grows so high that David even turns to the common enemy of Israel, the Philistines, for protection.  But even the Philistines recognize that this is the same David who has been victorious over them in battle several times-now might be their time for revenge.  So David does something even more extreme-he feigns insanity to repulse the Philistines and get them to banish him from their camp.  The ploy works-except now David ends up hiding in a cave-from both Saul and the Philistines.  So how does a beautiful psalm of worship fit into this bizarre scenario?

First, let me make a couple of other observations.  The greatest enemy of faith is fear.  Why?  Because fear amplifies our circumstances and it leads to condemnation.  Either we will condemn ourselves or we will condemn what or who we consider to be the source of our trials.  Fear can either paralyze us or tend us toward trying to take total control of a situation.  We know David was experiencing some fear over this situation because he brings up the word twice in this little psalm.  But he contrasts circumstantial fear with the fear of the Lord.  I believe that David is preaching to himself through this psalm.  He needs to realign his focus to confront his fears.

I believe that Psalm 34 divides neatly into two sections.  The first section encompasses verses 1-10 and focuses on praise.  The second section includes verses 11-22 and draws our attention to the need for wisdom.  The praise section draws out God’s unique character as a deliverer, a savior, a protector, a place of refuge and a provider.  But how does praise help someone in time of trial and danger?  Praise automatically takes our attention off of ourselves and puts it on God and His character.  We begin to see that God is greater than our circumstances and able to deliver us from our fears.

Wisdom helps us to know how to rightly and practically navigate through our circumstances.  If we will keep our language away from speaking evil, turn ourselves away from evil and seek peace-we can see a good result.  The psalm tells us that the Lord is favorable to the righteous but against those who do evil.  The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.  The Lord is able to redeem the situation and us.  To be redeemed means that we can be set free from the slavery of our situation.  Ultimately we have a great redeemer in the person of Jesus Christ.  Two passages from the New Testament bear this out and relate to the essential points of this psalm.  Romans 8:1-2 says, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.”  1 John 4:18-19 states, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. We love because he first loved us.”

It seems over the past two years I have struggled with many fears-some founded-most not.  I need the experiential instruction of Psalm 34.  What circumstances are you facing today that are about to drive you crazy?  That are causing you to live in fear?  That are taking your eyes off of God?  Cozy up to Psalm 34 and spend some time in verbal praise to God for who he is.  Ask him for the wisdom you need to navigate your circumstances, recognizing that your Redeemer lives!

Are We Worth More Than Five Euros?

I suppose the exercise was innocent enough-but it was certainly short sided. A few weeks ago my 12 year old son completed a basketball camp here in Italy. He has played on the same club team for four years and he is the only foreigner on his team. In all honesty he is of average skill on the court. Based on talent I would place him in about the middle of his 20 player squad. His greatest strength is his defense. He excels in this-but is often not recognized for his ability to cover well. We felt like this camp would really help him in his skills and in gaining fresh confidence.

Towards the end of the week long camp the coach decided to conduct an NBA style draft to choose three teams. Three captains were chosen (the three best or most popular players). Each captain was given 500 Euros in fake money to select whom he wished to be a part of his team-needing to out bid the other two captains for any particular player. My son was chosen last for the minimum price of 5 Euros. We learned this as we were driving home from the camp-it was the second thing he mentioned when we asked him how the week had gone. Being 12 years old my son has learned a little in how to manage some of his disappointments living in Italy as an outsider. He still spoke positively of the rest of the week-what he had learned-the relational time hanging out with the guys. But I knew this was deeply wounding. As soon as the words came out of his mouth I had a profound sense of anger, empathy and helplessness. I quickly recalled a time in my own life when I was eight years old and being chosen last for a playground game at school. No one ever wants to be chosen last and it never, ever feels good. We found out later that none of the other captains even wanted him-so the final captain was forced to take him at the minimum price.

I have lived in this country long enough to know that this was more about not being Italian than it was about talent. I think all cultures are like this to a greater or lesser degree. So this is not a post to rant on Italy and it’s lack of social acceptance. This episode caused me to reflect more deeply on the worth of something. The world is constantly placing a value on our existence. And usually it has far more to do with our perceived beauty, status, or utilitarian benefit. I struggle with this all the time. Like all of us I want to be liked and well thought of. I want to be significant in other people’s eyes. I want to matter. But every time I try and find this sense of worth and value as a broken person from a broken world-I only end up more empty and deeply disappointed. In those moments I am in need of a different perspective-a different value base from which I can live. In Deuteronomy 26:18 Yahweh tells Israel that He “has declared today that you are a people for His treasured possession”. Peter says something very similar in the New Testament that applies to all who truly follow Christ. In chapter two he states that we are “living stones rejected by men but precious in the sight of God”. He goes on to say, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for His own possession”. Peter is using Old Testament language to communicate an eternal truth. Our worth in God’s sight is inestimable. We matter so much to Him that He paid the price of His perfect Son to redeem us from our sin and imperfection. That is a value beyond talent, status, or beauty.

My son and I have talked through the basketball camp scenario a few times. I still have not figured out the best way to help him see his true value in Christ. At 12 years old where you fit in the pecking order of a sports team still really matters. I still hurt for him every time I think about this episode. I want to be able to rescue him from all of the world’s harsh ways-but I can’t. There is One who is our ultimate Rescuer who has proclaimed that we are His treasured possession. You and I are worth more that five Euros to the God of the universe. Whose estimation will you and I live from today?

Limitations and Burnout

My wife can read me better than I can.  She knows that when I say I feel “numb” that I am in deep need of rest.  Living in Italy over the last four years has brought new challenges to finding my spiritual and emotional rhythms.  I have found myself at times more fearful, more angry, more tired, and less refreshed than ever before.  Certainly some of that is living life in a new culture and in a high momentum ministry environment-some of it isn’t.  In my role of leadership development I have many conversations with leaders who experience these symptoms all too often.  Sometimes we describe this sensation as “burnout.”  “Burnout” is an interesting term-we know the feeling but the circumstances and causes are difficult to define.  As I have considered this notion in my own life and in the lives of others I have simply defined the primary causes as either being under relation-shipped or over taxed–or both.  By under relation-shipped I mean we are thin on our relationship with the Lord and/or other people who help to give us life and perspective.  By overtaxed I mean we simply work too much-usually because deep down we think we are indispensable to the cause or we have lost sight of our personal calling.

My brother in law recently gave me a book that has ministered to me on several levels-I highly recommend it as a necessary read for anyone, but especially leaders.  It is called Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership by Ruth Barton.  Maybe I can entice you to pick up a copy with the following thoughts on burnout.  Barton offers the following nine symptoms of what it looks like to go beyond your limits-to be heading towards burnout.

1. Irritability or hypersensitivity-it’s when things that don’t normally bother you put you over the edge.  This can manifest itself in outward or inward rage.

2. Restlessness-It’s when we have a vague sense of something that is not quite right or a strong feeling of wanting to bolt from from our life.

3. Compulsive overworking-this is simply the very American concept of workaholism-when we can’t seem to quit or shut it down.

4. Emotional numbness-it’s when we can’t feel anything-highs or lows-good or bad.

5. Escapist behaviors-When we do get a break in the action we “relax” in ways that not only don’t give us life-they steal life from us-and sometimes can be very damaging to our leadership lives.

6. Disconnected from our identity and calling-it’s when we feel as if we are just going through the motions of life and ministry or work-we have lost our sense of why we are doing what we are doing and at the mercy of other people’s expectations.

7. Not able to attend to human needs-this is when we don’t have time to care for basic human needs like exercise, eating right, sleeping enough, etc.

8. Hoarding energy-this is when we feel threatened by exposing ourselves to additional people or situations-so we become overly self protective and sometimes even reclusive.

9. Slippage in our spiritual practices-routines that are normally life giving like reading the Bible, prayer, personal reflection, journaling, become burdensome-they are not actually leading us to a true encounter with Jesus Christ.

Barton says that even if a few of these things are true of you and me then we are living and working beyond our limits and need to examine our lives-recognizing that what we are doing is not good for ourselves or the people we are serving.

Buy the book or Kindle it-you need the principles and perspectives that Ruth Barton offers.  I am looking forward to some oasis times in July to quiet my soul and rest.  There is no true Christ-centered leadership if something else is at the center.