Do You Have a Plan? (part 1)

I recently returned from leading a Spiritual Formation Conference with a wonderful group of 19 ministers from all around Ghana, West Africa.

My good friend Fred Asare hosted the conference at the Village of Hope. It was a time of quiet reading, careful reflection and thoughtful discussion over a period of several days.  Some of the men I already knew, but the openness and honesty of the whole group made this time one of the high points of my summer.

Early during our first day together I asked a question that I have often asked at Spiritual Formation retreats and seminars over the years.  I had first heard this question at a small men’s breakfast when I lived in Kansas City. One of the brothers in our congregation gave a short devotional to a group of about 15-20 men on a Saturday morning, and he included this question. It so impacted me that I wrote it down and have shared it countless times over the years.

Experience 2

In it’s original form, the question goes like this:

What is the difference between a man with 10 years of experience and a man with 1 year of experience 10 times?

Of course, it can be restated and applied in a number of ways:

What is the difference between a Christian with 10 years of experience … ?

What is the difference between a Minister with 10 years of experience … ?

What is the difference between a Leader with 10 years of experience … ?

Every time I ask some version of this question the group I am with usually does the same kind of soul searching, and the group of ministers in Ghana followed the same pattern.  As they thought through the “minister” version of the question, they realized that both ministers in this scenario had put in the same amount of time, and probably had gone through the same kind of experiences each year of the ten years.  But the first minister found depth and growth from year to year while the second minister never moved and never changed.  When I asked them “why” they realized that the first minister had a vision for each year’s growth.  He followed some kind of plan and grew each year.  The second minister had no vision and no plan.  And so, he simply repeated his first year over and over.

This question set the stage for rest of our time as together we began with a vision from Jesus and then crafted a plan for personal growth.

It was clear to me that my brothers in Ghana do not want their inner life to simply remain static from year to year.  They want movement, growth and change.

Stay tuned for part 2.

Spiritual Formation …………… Do You Believe Him?

I used to think that there were two components involved in spiritual growth:

(1) What I Am.

(2) What I Should Be.

And, of course, the goal of the Christian life is to simply move from what I am to what I should be. It sounds simple enough, but simple answers are not always as helpful as they seem.

I am reminded of the story of the man drowning in the ocean. He might have been careless and fallen in the water or, he might have been foolish and jumped in. But regardless of how he came to be there, the sea was rough, the man was very tired and it looked like he would most likely drown. As the story goes, someone floated by in a boat, saw the man and gave him some very simple, easy to understand advice, “What you need is dry land.” Nothing could have been truer or less helpful.

Simply telling someone where they are and where they should be does not take them there or help them get there. It doesn’t work for them and it won’t work for you. This is because there are not just two components involved in spiritual growth. There are three:

(1) What I Am.

(2) What I Should Be … and …

(3) What I Think I Can Be.

You see, it doesn’t matter what I should be, if I don’t believe it’s possible. And so, here is the question I’ve been asking myself. Do I really believe Jesus when he says, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:29-30)?

Do I believe that spiritual growth is easy or difficult? I think that for most of my life I have considered the godly life to be difficult. And please don’t misunderstand me. I know that any life, any undertaking, any course of action is difficult … in the beginning. But, Jesus says that his way of life, his style of living, his way of thinking, choosing, talking and acting can be “learned.” And, most exciting, he says it will bring “rest” and can become both “easy” and “light.”

Do we believe him?

I hope we do. Otherwise we are terribly inconsistent. I say this because the principle Jesus is stating is one we use in almost every area of our lives. It is way we approach education and athletics. It is the way we master any skill. We practice. We train. And over time, to quote Jesus, we “learn.” Something changes inside. A new way becomes clearer. Noble habits are shaped and “formed.” We not only practice but also desire His way of thinking and living.

Someone once said, “We give our heart to God immediately, but our habits come more slowly.” But still, they come. The more I practice the kindness, forgiveness, patience, love and purity of God, the more fruit of his Spirit will be deeply rooted in my heart and flourishing in my life. Can you picture the habit of patience flourishing in your life, or the attitudes of forgiveness and kindness thriving in your life? What would your life look like?

You see, if you are one to say, “I’m sorry, but I’ve never been a patient man” then you are only thinking about what you should be, rather than what you can be. If faith is simply a weekend “hobby” it will always be difficult. But if I make the decision to “learn” from Jesus, to follow a slow, steady, consistent spiritual process, then I will find “rest” not disorder, and over time the way of Jesus will become “easy” and “light.”

This process is sometimes called “spiritual formation” and is made up of “spiritual disciplines” – prayer, meditation, study, simplicity, solitude, fasting, service, silence, confession, worship, celebration and more. I am thankful that more and more, these “tools” are being utilized on a daily basis, and are bringing rest and change into the lives of many.

The recently departed Dallas Willard (1935-2013) once said in an interview, “Spiritual formation isn’t new; it’s only been lost for a while.”

Is spiritual formation finding its way into your life, or is it still lost? Do you believe that spiritual growth can be learned? Do you believe that Jesus’ “yoke” can be “easy?”

It doesn’t just depend upon what you think you should be. It depends upon what you think you can be. It depends upon whether you believe Jesus.

What Do Your Relationships Weigh?

For ten years I was a campus minister, first at Memphis State University and later at Southwest Missouri State. I did a lot of premarital counseling and performed a lot of weddings. I helped these students prepare to begin, but I rarely was called upon when things were ending.  This is because college students hardly ever divorced or died. But all this changed when I shifted from the role of campus minister to the role of preaching minister.

At the very beginning of my preaching career, my first funeral message was for a ten year old girl who died due to a medical mistake. I was ignorant. I was inexperienced. I did not know what to say or do. So, I called an older, wiser minister and asked, “What do I say?” He said, “Get a pencil” and in that moment, and in many future moments, he was my mentor.

In 1992 Gary Collins wrote a book entitled, You Can Make A Difference. He tells of a team of analysts from Yale University who spent several years collecting research about moving from youth, through middle age, into old age. One major idea emerged — mentoring.  A mentor is someone who guides, corrects and serves as a model for someone younger. Stories of mentoring go back to Homer’s ancient story of Odysseus who simply asked his good friend, whose name was “Mentor” to counsel his young son while he was away. And the mentoring style hasn’t changed much since that time. Mentors encourage and challenge their protégés to go beyond their comfort zone and explore their potential. Mentors listen. They observe. They advise. And there is nothing about mentoring that is done quickly. It all takes time.

I read a fascinating story about twelve executives grouped at the very top of AT&T’s international communication empire.  Though they were very different from each other, still they had one common link in their background. Robert Greenleaf, a researcher for AT&T, found that each man had some early mentoring that greatly accelerated his progress. But most surprising was the fact that the same man mentored four of the twelve.  As Greenleaf put it, this man had mentored one-third of AT&T’s top management. He went on to say that this man was probably the most influential manager of his generation.

Throughout history the leaders who have made the most out of life all had one thing in common — they all had mentors.

Forty miles south of Turkey, in the Mediterranean, is the small island of Cyprus. There a man named Joseph started a spiritual tidal wave that flooded the Roman world and changed history. And all Joseph did was mentor two men. One was an older teen that wrote down the story of Jesus. The other man Joseph mentored was a traveling tent-maker, a man who wrote 32% of the New Testament, planted dozens of churches and pioneered cross-cultural evangelism. The two men are Mark and Paul. And their mentor? Joseph’s Greek name is Barnabas, which means encourager.

Of course the greatest mentor of all is Jesus. And I think it’s interesting and important that Jesus did not begin his movement the way we begin movements today. He did not plan an advertising campaign. He did not write a book and launch a multi-city speaking tour. Instead, when Jesus began, he immediately chose a small group to mentor. In fact, his most well known sermon, one usually thought of as addressed to a crowd, is called the Sermon on the Mount.  But have you ever taken a close look at who the teaching is actually given to? Matthew 5:1-2 begins this way, “Now when he saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them, saying, …”

Now I know that large crowds followed Jesus.  I know that Jesus healed the sick and raised the dead. I know that everywhere he went large masses of people formed. But I also know, as Mark 9 puts it, “Jesus did not want anyone to know where they were, because he was teaching his disciples.” 

I like the way one writer described the style of Jesus — “He choose twelve, focused on three and graduated eleven.” I especially like the admonition by the late Dallas Willard said in an interview, “Don’t count your people, weigh them.”  That was the style of Jesus.  What’s your style?