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.

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?

My Closest Neighbor

I can usually remember where I am when something is said that greatly influences me because I will stop and write it down. 

I was in St. Louis, in a class on a Sunday morning.  There was nothing new or outstanding about the class.  The teacher had just read Mark 12:28-31.

“Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

I had read these verses many times and had thought about the meaning of loving God and loving people.  And, in my pride (isn’t this often the case), I wasn’t expecting to learn anything new that day. 

But then, the teacher asked a question that was so simple and clear that I wrote it down. “Who is your closest neighbor?”  He waited a few calculated seconds, just long enough for me to wonder where he was going with the question, and then he provided his own answer.  “My closest neighbor sleeps right beside me.  And my next closest neighbors sleep just down the hall from me.”  I continued to write as my mind was filled with new thoughts and implications.

Suddenly, loving and serving my “neighbor” was no longer an interesting theological discussion or even a complicated global missionary strategy.  No, it suddenly became highly personal, intensely practical and crystal clear. I knew exactly were to begin. 

Our closest neighbors are those living under our roof, or those who brought us into the world and gave us a home.  And guess what?  These “closest neighbors” can be the most difficult ones to love and serve.  We know their faults all too well, and they know our faults.  How sad, that the ones we know the best are the ones we are most likely to take for granted.

And so I would like to suggest an idea. Determine to put your closest neighbors at the top of your list of people to love and serve.  In one sense, they can be the easiest to serve because you know them so well.  You know their hurts, their needs, their fears, their temptations and their weaknesses.  In fact, no other person is better suited to offer them the kind of help and service that you can offer. And, they are right there, all the time, close enough to touch.  Here are a few places to start your thinking:

  • Each day, as you arrive back home, determine that you are not “off” but “on” duty for your family.
  • Give them daily affirmation, hugs and praise.
  • Ask questions about the day and listen without offering advice.
  • Call your parents and ask them what they did today.
  • Take your turn with the household duties.
  • Take a walk through the neighborhood with your spouse to talk and reconnect.
  • Sit in silence with that “closest neighbor” who may be hurting.  Let your presence communicate your love.
  • Pray with your family on a daily basis.

One day, when our children were small, as I was reading the story of Jesus’ baptism and temptation, I noticed once again that between the two events there is this message from God.  Mark makes it a highly personal family message, “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” (1:11).  It occurred to me that Jesus had just made a decision to go to the cross (baptism) and Satan had just made a decision to stop him (temptation), and so God plants this wonderful message of love, confidence and affirmation right in the middle of it all.

I determined right then that if Jesus needed this message, then my closest neighbors, my wife and children, needed it as well.  From that point on, each time I tucked David into bed I gave him some form of: “David, you are my son, I love you very much and I’m so very proud of you.”  And then, I entered Jessica’s room, knelt beside her bed and gave her the same message.  I did this every day until “tucking in” matured into a phone call of encouragement or a text or email of confidence. My son is now married and my daughter is thinking about it, but they will always be my closest neighbors.  Along with Pam I will always feel a deep sense of “you are my wife/son/daughter, I love you very much and I’m so very proud of what you are becoming.” 

Jesus was only asked one question, “What is the greatest commandment,” but he in essence said, “I can’t give you only one answer.  I have to give you two answers because loving God always involves loving your neighbors.”

So, how do we love and serve our neighbors?  Let’s begin with our closest neighbors and what God teaches us there will help us move out through the circles of relatives, friends, work associates and strangers. 

Time To Change Seats?

I read of a linguist who translated a portion of the Bible into a tribal dialect and then left a man with the task of teaching the people to read.  The linguist returned months later to find three students and the teacher seated around a table dilengently learning.  Each was reading, but the page with the translated text was never moved.  And so,one had learned to read the text sideways.  Another also read it sideways, but from the other side.  And a third read it upside down.  You see, they always sat in the same chairs.   And each, from their own particular vantagepoint, thought the text was written one way.

It’s so easy to see something from only point of view.  We may even think it’s the only valid viewpoint.

Is there room for diversity?  Is there room for discussion and change?  How many are willing to rethink and reconsider?

Sometimes it’s a good idea to simply change seats.

cul-de-sac living

I really like the thoughtful writing of Ken Gire. Here is a piece from his, Windows of the Soul.  It gave me a good start to my day.

It is, I suppose, possible to speak of the soul without speaking of God, just as it is possible to tour a cathedral without stopping to worship. Most of us, though, have taken that tour. And for most of us, it’s not enough.

The pursuit of self is what most of us have been doing for much of our lives, even our spiritual lives. But the self is a cul-de-sac, and eventually we end up where we started. Footsore and just as frustrated, just as unfulfilled. Feeling we’re a failure, or worse, a fraud.

The pursuit of soul, if soul is all we’re pursuing, is not much different. It’s a longer walk down a nicer street, but the street is still a cul-de-sac, and in the end, regardless how invigorating the walk, it doesn’t lead beyond the neighborhood of who we are.

… We long for something more than a routine walk around the religious block. We long for the companionship of God. We long for the assurance that we are not taking this journey alone. That He is walking with us and talking with us and intimately involved in our lives.

This new year, as you begin again, don’t just take the tour.  Stop and worship.